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As Pandemic Wears On, Food Challenges are Increasing for Many Older Americans

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As the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic fallout persist, the number of Americans struggling to put food on the table is likely growing. Federal policy makers should respond accordingly, and they already have a strong and proven tool at their disposal.

Confluence of Factors Driving Increased Need

Even before the pandemic hit the U.S., 9.8 million Americans ages 50 and older did not have consistent, reliable access to healthy food. That number is likely increasing, due in large part to devastating job losses, including among older Americans. The number of U.S. workers ages 55 and older shrank from almost 38 million in February to about 33 million in May.

At the same time, disruptions in the food supply chain are resulting in higher grocery prices. For example, temporary closures of some meatpacking plants due to COVID-19 outbreaks reduced meat supply and increased meat prices—in some cases double digit percent increases—in April and May.

Increases in food costs are not lost on low-income older adults struggling to make ends meet. In fact, a recent survey conducted by FMI—the Food Industry Association—found that half of low-income older adults were especially concerned about rising food prices.[i] For this group, even small increases in food prices can mean the difference between putting a meal on the table and going without.

Historic job losses and wage and work-hour reductions, alongside rising food prices, make for an especially dire situation for low-income older adults. According to FMI’s survey, 43 percent of older low-income respondents were concerned about having enough money to pay for the food they need, and 37 percent were either very or extremely concerned about their ability to have enough food for their household in the coming weeks.

Higher Demand Calls for Higher SNAP Benefits

During this unprecedented time, it is critical to get food to those who need it. While food banks and pantries can help, they are struggling to keep up with skyrocketing demand. Physical distancing also makes it difficult for many older adults to access them.

That’s where the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) comes in. SNAP is a critical federal safety net that helps prevent hunger by providing eligible low-income people with resources for food, serving 8.7 million households with older adults in 2018[ii]. SNAP is a highly effective program for reducing food insecurity.

In an April PPI blog, we highlighted the need for increased SNAP benefits during the current pandemic. Previous emergency legislation increased SNAP benefits for households not already receiving the maximum benefit. However, about a third of SNAP households with adults 50 and older were already receiving the maximum benefit because they had zero net income, and therefore, did not benefit from the legislation. Heightened unemployment coupled with spiking food costs call for across the board increases for all SNAP households during this emergency.

Federal policymakers should act now to:

  • temporarily increase SNAP benefit allotments for all enrollees,
  • expand access to online grocery shopping and delivery using SNAP benefits which can help those especially vulnerable to serious COVID-19 complications stay home, and

As the COVID-19 crisis persists, food insecurity among older adults will only grow unless action is taken. Expanding proven programs like SNAP during the current public health crisis can help vulnerable older adults access the food they need to stay healthy during this pandemic.

[i] For the purposes of this blog, “low-income” refers to those with incomes below 130 percent of the poverty line, which is the gross income limit for SNAP eligibility. Data on low-income older adults provided by FMI at AARP’s request and is not included in the public research reports.

[ii] AARP Public Policy Institute analysis of SNAP quality control data, 2018

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