Key Takeaways

  • Food insecurity increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the number of food insecure households in the U.S. remains high.  

  • There are thousands of programs available to help eligible seniors afford groceries as well as other living expenses such as healthcare and utilities. 

  • BenefitsCheckup, NCOA’s confidential screening tool, can help you determine if you or an older adult you care for qualifies for food and other assistance programs.

In 2019, food insecurity in America hit a 20-year low.1 But this progress was quickly derailed by COVID-19’s rapid and unexpected onset. The pandemic caused job losses in record numbers, putting added strain on older adults who were already struggling to get by. Supply chain disruptions left many supermarket shelves bare, making it difficult to find basic dietary staples. Safety concerns prompted the closure of food banks as well as centers that distributed meals to seniors in the community. Fear of contracting the virus and calls for social distancing kept many older adults isolated in their homes, with no reliable access to food.

A 2020 analysis showed a staggering 58.8% increase in food insecurity among older adults compared to pre-pandemic levels. This issue hit communities of color the hardest, with food insecurity rates higher among Black and Hispanic older adults.2

Even as the pandemic moves slowly into the country’s rearview mirror, its effects are still being felt. Food insecurity remains stubbornly elevated. A 2022 report from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, for example, found that households in the Chicago Metro area continue to experience higher rates of food insecurity than during pre-pandemic days—and these rates are rising.3

Why is food insecurity in older adults important to address?

When older adults don’t consistently get enough healthy food to eat, it can have a harmful impact on their health. The effects of food insecurity include a higher risk of developing chronic diseases as well as mental health issues such as depression.   

The bright side is that there are many programs designed to help eligible low-income older adults get the food they need. They can help seniors buy nutritious food at grocery stores and farmers markets and even get extra assistance in an emergency. Programs like these have the potential to change lives—and their benefits are there for the taking. A recent NCOA study found that older adults who enrolled in additional benefits experienced dramatic reductions in their levels of food insecurity. They also reported improvements in their social and emotional well-being.

Where can I find food assistance for seniors?

Whether you’re having trouble affording food for your own household, or you care for an older adult who needs food assistance, here are some great places to start:

  • Food Banks: Food banks in America range from small rural centers to large facilities in metropolitan areas. They help feed those in need by securing food donations from food retailers, manufacturers, growers, and other organizations. Feeding America operates a nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 meal programs that serve people and communities in all 50 U.S. states as well as Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. Find a food bank in your local area and contact them to ask about free food distributions near you.
  • Meals on Wheels: This organization has a network of more than 5,000 independently run local meal distribution programs. In addition to delivering varied, nutritious meals, Meals on Wheels volunteers provide valuable social interaction and companionship as well as a home safety check with every visit. To find a Meals on Wheels program near you or an older adult you care for, visit their website and enter your zip code.
  • SNAP (formerly Food Stamps): SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the largest hunger safety net program in the U.S., helping millions of older adults buy the food they need to age well. SNAP benefits can be used at large retailers like Walmart, grocery stores, and even farmers markets to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, milk, yogurt, bread, and other nourishing foods. While it’s a common myth that SNAP benefit amounts are low, the average SNAP benefit for a one-person senior household is $104 per month. SNAP assistance is open to anyone who meets its eligibility requirements, which vary from state to state.

    SNAP can provide an extra cushion for tight budgets. For example, Carlos M, aged 71, recently lost his part-time job working at a supermarket. Despite getting some assistance from his family, he needed help buying food on a fixed income. Carlos applied for SNAP and was approved.

"My benefits are helping my monthly income and my ability to buy healthy food," he told his local benefits enrollment center.

  • The Senior Food Box Program: Officially called the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), this program helps eligible seniors improve their diets with healthy surplus food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) commodity food list. Unlike SNAP, the CSFP doesn't provide enough food for a complete and well-rounded diet. However, it can serve as a helpful supplement to other food assistance programs you participate in. An individual Senior Food Box is estimated to contain about $50 worth of food—largely staples such as pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, milk, and cereal.
  • The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP): If you're having difficulty keeping your fridge full, the SFMNP is another resource to explore. It helps eligible older adults purchase fresh, locally grown produce and other foods at farmers markets, roadside stands, and community supported agriculture programs (CSAs). Like The Senior Food Box program, the SFMNP is intended to supplement SNAP or another food assistance program, allowing you to stock up on a balanced selection of groceries.

Can NCOA connect me to food assistance programs in my area?

There are thousands of public and private programs available to help low-income older adults pay for food as well as healthcare, prescriptions, utilities, and more. However, millions of eligible seniors are missing out on these benefits because they don’t know about the programs or how to apply.

That’s why NCOA created BenefitsCheckup, our 100% confidential benefits screening tool. It takes just minutes to find programs that meet your unique needs, whether it's extra help affording groceries or home repair assistance. And you can do it online, right from your phone, computer, or tablet.

After using BenefitsCheckup, Sharell and Tom from Phoenix, AZ, told us: "We thought our income was too high to qualify. Turns out, we're eligible for savings of up to $4,900 a year on our prescriptions."

Checking your eligibility or finding out if another older adult eligible is easy. Just visit BenefitsCheckup.org and enter your zip code to get started.

Sources

1. The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020 & 2021, Feeding America. Found on the internet at https://www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/2021-03/National%20Projections%20Brief_3.9.2021_0.pdf

2. Nearly 60 Percent Increase in Older Adult Food Insecurity During COVID-19: Federal Action on SNAP Needed Now, Food Research & Action Center. Found on the internet at https://frac.org/blog/nearly-60-percent-increase-in-older-adult-food-insecurity-during-covid-19-federal-action-on-snap-needed-now

3. Hunger in Our Community: A Spring 2022 Status Report, Greater Chicago Food Depository. Found on the internet at https://www.chicagosfoodbank.org/news/hunger-in-our-community-spring-2022/