By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Stereotypically, food shortages among older adults afflict elders who cannot afford enough food. While certainly finances represent a large factor in food shortages, Jeffrey Nieznanski, supervising attorney with the Monroe County Legal Assistance Center in Rochester, said that the issue is multi-faceted.
Lack of transportation can create a problem in accessing good food. Some older adults may have relied on their late spouse to cook and now face learning to prepare meals. Others may have physical and cognitive challenges that make cooking difficult, which forces them to rely on prepackaged foods.
The negative effects of eating poorly can take a bigger toll on frail elders struggling with health problems than on younger, healthier people. By cutting back on what they perceive as the most flexible parts of their budget — food and medication — they further endanger their health.
If an older adult on a fixed income suffers a setback from inflation or another type of loss, it’s harder to recover than for people who are still working.
“Our office has been recently swamped with people who lost food as a result of the power outage from the wind storm,” Nieznanski said. “We had over 400 people inquiring about emergency SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] passes for food lost.”
Unfortunately, many older adults don’t want to accept help.
Nieznanski said that food shortage is a problem laden with stigma, which can prevent people who need help from receiving it.
“A lot of seniors have a problem with being on what they perceive as a welfare benefit, though it’s not technically such,” he said. “There are a lot of misconceptions that it’s not worth getting benefits because the paperwork takes too much time. Some have mental health or language barriers.
Mark Dwyer, communications manager with Food Link in Rochester, said that only about 10 percent of the organization’s 200,000 participants are over 60 years old.
“Seniors are a high risk population and definitely use our services,” he said.
Food Link serves as a hub for the food pantries in a 10-county area.
More eligible elders could receive benefits. Dwyer said that only 41 percent of eligible elders apply for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, compared with 83 percent of those eligible in other age groups.
“Help is out there, but for some reason, not all of them are able to take advantage of it,” Dwyer said.
Among its many services and programs, Food Link provides Curbside Market, a food truck that regularly sells fresh produce purchased from farmers to neighborhoods where fresh produce isn’t readily available.
“It’s great for people with mobility and transportation issues,” Dwyer said.
About 62 percent of customers of Curbside are older than 50 and 23 percent are over 65.
People facing hunger can call 211 to learn about health and human services agencies available to help.
To apply for SNAP, visit www.mybenefits.ny.gov. A caregiver of a person 60 or an individual 21 and over with disabilities may call 585-325-2800 for application assistance.