The downturn made things even worse. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2007, only 11 percent of households were struggling to put food on the table. In 2008, that number jumped to 14.6 percent and edged up again to 14.7 percent last year — the highest number ever recorded since surveys began in 1995.
One encouraging sign emerged from the 2009 numbers, released Nov. 15. Reports of hunger are down slightly among older Americans, though analysts say that drop may be simply because more people are taking advantage of emergency food aid.
Indeed, other surveys confirm that a growing numbers of older Americans are lining up at soup kitchens and food banks. The nonprofit group Feeding America, which represents a network of more than 200 food banks around the country, has seen a 46 percent increase in the number of low-income people seeking emergency food assistance since 2005. About 8 percent of the people in line are 65 and older, a total of almost 3 million people.
The Future of Hunger
In some parts of the country, the situation is even worse. "We're seeing more and more seniors in really dire straits," says Aine Duggan, vice president for government relations, policy and research at the Food Bank for New York City.
One in six people 65-plus in New York City receives food from soup kitchens and food pantries. More than one in three reported having trouble affording food in 2009, a 65 percent increase since 2003.
Duggan worries that their ranks are likely to increase. "We've seen a big jump in the percentage of people 50 to 64 who say they are having difficulty affording food. These are mostly working people who are struggling. If they're having trouble now, what will it be like after they retire?"
According to James F. Ziliak, a researcher at the University of Kentucky's Center for Poverty Research, the people most at risk of going hungry today are those ages 60 to 64. "That was a big surprise," says Ziliak, who co-authored the 2008 report about hunger. Many of those people lost jobs during the downturn, haven't been able to find work and don't yet qualify for Social Security or other benefits, he speculates.
The consequences far exceed hunger pangs.
"Older people who can't afford adequate food are at much higher risk of falling short on crucial nutrients," says Jung Sun Lee, an assistant professor
of gerontology at the University of Georgia who is studying hunger among older people in the state. "That puts them at greater risk of chronic illnesses related to diet, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease."
Squeezed by rising health care costs and living expenses, more and more people are forced to choose between paying for medications and putting food on the table. A 2010 study by Lee and her colleagues found that people struggling to eat are almost three times more likely to skip pills, delay refilling prescriptions or stop taking a medication entirely.
Small wonder, then, that older Americans faced with hunger are more likely to report poor health than those with enough to eat. They're also more likely to be hospitalized and to have longer hospital stays.
How Can It Happen Here?
Poverty is the leading cause of hunger, of course. Living alone is another risk factor.
Yet even when help is available, many older Americans don't take advantage. Demand for food stamps, for example, now part of a program called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), soared as the economy soured. In August 2010, the last month for which statistics are available, 42.3 million Americans received SNAP benefits. That's the highest ever recorded and 5 million more than just one year before.
Surveys show that about 67 percent of households eligible for SNAP benefits currently receive them. In contrast, only about one in three eligible older people takes advantage of the program.
"The problem of hunger here isn't a shortage of food, like it is in developing countries," Lee says. "In a way it's more complex. The more we understand why it occurs, the better able we'll be to eliminate it."