When we picture what hunger may look like, we often imagine a single mother working odd jobs and her kids waiting at home with empty stomachs. We picture homeless men and women on the streets, or college students on a budget. Though these situations are also a troubling reality, many of us sometimes forget the case that’s becoming more and more common: hungry seniors.

United Way reports that, as our country’s population ages, the number of food insecure seniors is also increasing. In fact, the numbers more than doubled from 2001 to 2016, reaching 4.9 million (United Way of Northern New Jersey, 2019).

In 2016, nearly a quarter of Michigan residents were age 60 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Northern Michigan, in particular, has a higher concentration of seniors than counties located in the southern portion of the state. For example, as older generations move to this picturesque area to retire, younger generations are having fewer kids and moving away for new careers.

In short, Northern Michigan’s population is aging fast. And it doesn’t seem like our services can keep up with their needs. According to Feeding America West Michigan, there are five major contributing factors to senior hunger.

  • Low SNAP enrollment rates. In the U.S., as few as 45% of eligible seniors are enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
  • Insufficient SNAP benefits. Many who do enroll in SNAP do not receive enough benefits to meet their needs. Others have difficulty making ends meet, but don’t qualify for benefits because they fall above the poverty line.
  • High medical costs. The rising cost of prescriptions, frequent doctor visits, and less-than-adequate insurance coverage means many seniors are forced to choose between food and necessary medical expenses.
  • Raising grandchildren. The financial burden associated with raising grandchildren is a common reason many seniors become food insecure.
  • Living in rural areas. In rural regions, like most of Northern Michigan, not owning a vehicle or being unable to drive can greatly hinder food access. Grocery stores are often few and far between, and public transportation options nonexistent.

Unfortunately, seniors who experience food insecurity are more likely than others to experience chronic conditions such as depression, asthma, chest pain, activity limitations, and high blood pressure–worsening their already compromised health and adding to their feelings of exclusion and powerlessness.

Manna Food Project partners with several programs in our tri-county area to combat this growing issue, including Friendship and Seniors Centers, churches, and local Commission on Aging sites. Nearly 25% of Manna’s regular food pantry clients are seniors, as well. Recently, we’ve implemented a “Senior Shelf” in our pantry to ensure our older community members receive the right nutrition they need.

While the issue of senior hunger seems to expand as our population ages, Manna and our partners will continue to work toward a food secure future for everyone.

Jessyca Stoepker | February 1, 2020