Food Insecurity Studies Reveal Increased Risks for Low-Income and Older Adults

In the wake of the pandemic, SFSI affiliates and faculty in the School of Public Health, Julia Wolfson and Cindy Leung, quickly implemented studies to understand how the pandemic was (and still is) impacting certain segments of the population in real time. Back in May Kara Gavin (kegavin@umich.edu) wrote a piece originally published here on a study looking at food insecurity in older adults based on the Healthy Aging poll and you can see the results of the poll here. In June Michigan Public Health News published another piece on a study conducted by Leung and Wolfson, which you can read in entirety here that details the impacts of the pandemic on food insecurity in low income adults. See segments of these pieces below, summarizing what was found by these two SFSI affiliates.

Even before COVID-19, many adults over 50 lacked stable food supply, didn’t use assistance

Even before the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc with the nation’s food supply and economy, one in seven adults between the ages of 50 and 80 already had trouble getting enough food because of cost or other issues, a new poll finds. Disruptions to food supply chains, employment and social services from COVID-19 may have worsened disparities, say the experts who designed the poll.

The new results come from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, carried out by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation with support from AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center. It involved a national sample of more than 2,000 adults aged 50 to 80 who answered a range of questions about their food security in December 2019.

“These data suggest an important opportunity, which is likely even more urgent now, to connect older adults with resources they may not know about, and to explore public policies that could improve access”

“These data suggest an important opportunity, which is likely even more urgent now, to connect older adults with resources they may not know about, and to explore public policies that could improve access,” said Cindy Leung, a member of IHPI and assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the U-M School of Public Health who worked on the poll.

Julia Wolfson, assistant professor of health management and policy at the School of Public Health, notes the striking differences the poll reveals between those who said they hadn’t experienced food insecurity in the past year, and those who had.

“Access to nutritious food and health status are closely linked, yet this poll reveals major disparities in that access,” said Preeti Malani, the poll’s director and professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine. “Even as we focus on preventing the spread of coronavirus, we must also ensure that older adults can get food that aligns with any health conditions they have, so we don’t exacerbate diabetes, hypertension, digestive disorders and other conditions further.”

Options for increasing food security after 50

Malani notes that because of COVID-19 and temporary closures of senior centers and other places that served meals, the federal program that supports Meals on Wheels and community food services for older adults has freed up money for more home delivery of meals. And new programs to feed older adults have started at the federal and state levels.

For instance, the state of Michigan has established an expanded program for meal delivery thanks to the newly flexible funds. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, has allowed states to apply for emergency waivers to make it easier for people to qualify for the program, or to stay on it.

AARP Foundation has provided grants to multiple programs that aim to reduce food insecurity, including Food on the Move, the Campus Kitchens Project and funding for states to help seniors apply for nutrition assistance. In light of the coronavirus crisis, AARP recently called for Congress and USDA to provide a temporary increase in the maximum benefit and minimum monthly benefit for SNAP.

Coronavirus Pandemic Worsens Food Insecurity for Low-Income Adults

Using data from a national survey of low-income adults in mid-March, Julia Wolfson and Cindy Leung of the University of Michigan School of Public Health measured household food security—the lack of consistent access to food—and challenges to meeting basic needs due to COVID-19.

“Our study shows that a robust, comprehensive policy response is needed to mitigate food insecurity as the pandemic progresses, particularly expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits, robust unemployment benefits, and ensuring access to food for children eligible for free and reduced price school lunches through the summer and beyond,” said Wolfson, assistant professor of Health Management and Policy.

“Doing so will allow us to better support the needs of the population as the spread of COVID-19 continues.”

The study, published in the journal Nutrients, found that 44% of low-income adults in the United States are food insecure and 20% have marginal food security, while 36% are food secure. Among those with low food security, 41% report not having enough food to feed themselves or their family, 36% report not having enough money to pay rent/mortgage and half report not having enough money to pay their bills.

“Food is a core determinant of health and food insecurity is associated with numerous poor health outcomes,” said Cindy Leung, assistant professor of Nutritional Sciences at the School of Public Health. “This study highlights the growing number of families facing food insecurity in the wake of COVID-19 who need additional support with food, finances, and child care.”