Experts describe these people as "food insecure," and their ranks include about 10 million people age 50 and older—a number that has almost doubled since 2001.
It's a staggering, complex problem that has spurred a search for new approaches that address the root causes of hunger. "The natural, human response is, 'Well, if someone's hungry, you have to feed them,' " says Jim Lutzweiler, the head of hunger impact programs for AARP Foundation. "But that doesn't really do anything to build food security for people in the long term. We need a new formula."
Long-standing efforts to combat hunger have focused on giving people food—straightforward charity. Feeding America, for example, provided 3.7 billion meals last year through its network of food banks and soup kitchens across the country. And AARP Foundation just wrapped up the fifth year of Drive to End Hunger, a campaign that has provided 34 million meals to low-income older Americans.
New efforts go beyond that by looking at hunger as a health issue. "Nothing is more critical to people's health than food," says AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson. "The consequences of poor nutrition are devastating." Food-insecure older Americans are 60 percent more likely to experience depression and more than 50 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack.
New allies in the fight against hunger come from the health care industry, government agencies and nonprofits like AARP and AARP Foundation. And they're joined by members of the agricultural food chain, from farmers to major supermarket chains. Atif Bostic, executive director of the nonprofit Uplift Solutions, which helps grocery stores open in low-income areas, says such collaborations are win-win. "The customers have access to healthy, affordable food and the store becomes an essential, profitable part of the community."
Ryerson adds: "Let's widen the circle of collaboration to identify and carry out real solutions. This is a land of plenty — no one should have to go hungry."
Breakthroughs In Food Insecurity
An array of programs aim to give low-income people better opportunities to eat healthy foods
At select Kroger supermarkets in Tennessee and Mississippi — states that have some of the highest rates of food insecurity — shoppers who use a SNAP card to buy $10 in fresh fruits and vegetables receive a coupon for a 50 percent discount on their next in-store purchase of fresh produce. Through the program, called Fre$h Savings, participants can also get up to $10 in tokens for fresh produce when they use their SNAP dollars at select area farmers markets. AARP Foundation and UnitedHealthcare collaborated on the program.
Complementing Fre$h Savings, AARP Foundation has introduced a grocery store tour program to help older customers make healthier food choices and shop on a budget, beginning at select Kroger stores in Tennessee and Mississippi.
Three full-service Brown's Super Stores in the Philadelphia region, operating as ShopRite, serve as community hubs, two in former food deserts. They include an on-site nutritionist or dietitian, a health clinic and a station offering help with applications for government assistance. They also have a credit union and public meeting rooms. AARP Foundation is supporting the development of these services in the three stores.
To help food-insecure patients learn nutritious eating, health professionals give a "prescription" for fruits and vegetables, sometimes accompanied by nutrition education and recipes. The patients may also get coupons that they can redeem for produce using SNAP benefits at participating farmers markets and stores — and they get twice the amount that could be purchased with food stamps alone. Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit that advocates for access to better food in low-income neighborhoods, pioneered the program. AARP Foundation is exploring a similar food prescription program in Philadelphia with UnitedHealthcare, UpLift Solutions and Brown's ShopRite.