Not long ago, 85 year-old Elvinia lost her sister. They had lived together and without their combined income, Elvinia began struggling to put food on the table.
Fortunately, help was available. The local senior center helped Elvinia apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and a temporary COVID-19 emergency food distribution program. As they have for many Americans, these types of programs helped Elvinia access nutritious food during a particularly hard time.
Stories like Elvinia’s are not uncommon. Despite a pandemic and widespread job loss that hit older workers especially hard, the share of older Americans experiencing food insecurity (i.e. limited or uncertain access to adequate food) stayed relatively stable between 2019 and 2020. This development can be at least partially attributed to congressional actions like pandemic-related boosts to SNAP, which helped millions put food on the table.
However, the overall numbers mask an important fact: Food insecurity is hitting some groups disproportionately. Stark racial and ethnic disparities in food insecurity have long existed among older Americans, and disparities only worsened between 2019 and 2020 (see figure below). Pre-pandemic, older Black Americans faced food insecurity at nearly three times the rate of their White counterparts. Now the difference is four-fold. Between 2019 and 2020, food insecurity among older Black adults increased 4 percentage points, even as it decreased slightly among older White adults. Food insecurity also edged up among older Hispanic and Asian Americans, though nearly three times as many Hispanic older adults experience food insecurity as their Asian counterparts.
Note: NH refers to non-Hispanic
Source: AARP Public Policy Institute analysis of Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement
Disparities Are Deeply Rooted
The reasons for racial and ethnic disparities in food insecurity are complex, intertwined with factors like poverty and driven by structural inequities that result in the unequal distribution of power and resources. Racial and ethnic disparities in access to well-paying jobs, safe neighborhoods, affordable housing, transportation, and community resources (like grocery stores) in turn contribute to disparities in food insecurity. [i] In addition, income gaps have long persisted across racial and ethnic groups, and low income is one of the strongest predictors of food insecurity. In 2019, median income was about $48,000 among White adults ages 50 to 64 compared to $31,000 and $28,000 among older Black and Hispanic adults, respectively.
The pandemic has exacerbated these existing disparities, leading to disproportionately higher food insecurity among communities of color. For example, both Black and Hispanic workers have been more likely to lose income during the pandemic, making it harder to put food on the table.
Policies Need to Address Underlying Causes
Health starts in our neighborhoods, homes, and workplaces. Policymakers should address the underlying social and economic conditions that impact health and quality of life to ensure all Americans have the same opportunity to live long and healthy lives. Within the realm of nutrition policy, policymakers should take such steps as evaluating federal nutrition programs for their impact on food security disparities and considering ways to further promote racial equity in these programs. Policymakers must also address discriminatory policies that influence access to resources like health care, housing, employment, and education over the life course – all of which are critical to long-term financial security and the ability to consistently access healthy, affordable food as we age.
[i] These are all factors that help determine how livable a community is. To see how livable your community is, check out the AARP Livability Index.