The Pandemic’s Long-Term Impacts on Food Insecurity Among Older Adults, and the Benefit of Federal Help

A tragic aspect of the pandemic’s prolonged economic downturn – the rising rate of food insecurity in the United States – could impact older, poorer adults and their families for years to come, according to a study by researchers at the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston and the National Council on Aging.

Two groundbreaking issue briefs underscore the long-lasting effects of pandemic-related food insecurity among older adults, especially older women and people of color.

The research suggests that while enhancements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were likely effective in temporarily decreasing pandemic-induced food insecurity among vulnerable older adults, the increased SNAP benefits provided by the American Rescue Plan need to be made permanent and reflect increased food costs to overtake the growing number of older households expected to face food insecurity.

“The findings highlight the positive impact of SNAP in combatting food insecurity, but the key to continued program effectiveness is to assure that the program meets the growing demands and rising costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, while putting a sharper focus on reducing racial/ethnic inequities,” said Dr. Marc A. Cohen, one of the researchers of the report and co-director of the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston.

“The past is prologue, and this analysis underscores that after a major socio-economic upheaval, such as a recession or pandemic, food insecurity among vulnerable older adults grows and remains higher than before the catastrophic event,” said NCOA President and CEO Ramsey Alwin. “We need to take hunger off older adults’ tables by making enhanced SNAP benefits permanent.”

The first issue brief, Food Insecurity Among Older Adults and the Role of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), highlights how the most recent recession in 2008 affected food insecurity among people over 60 and how those levels of hunger persisted even 10 year later.

“These findings are staggering because the COVID-19 pandemic has already had grave economic and health consequences, and we can reasonably expect that older women and people of color will continue to be the hardest hit in the coming decade,” said Susan Silberman, PhD, Senior Director of Research and Evaluation at NCOA and a report author.

The second issue brief, The Effectiveness and Adequacy of the Supplemental NutritionAssistance Program (SNAP) in Reducing Food Insecurity During an Economic Downturn, shows that although SNAP is effective at reducing food insecurity and skipped meals, SNAP benefits have not kept up with the rising cost of food and there are still a substantial number of older adults who are skipping meals despite being enrolled in the program.

It also underscores how the roughly $12 billion in new funding allocated to food assistance programs under the American Rescue Plan should remain in place permanently and be enhanced to reflect rising food prices.

“The findings highlight the positive impact of SNAP in combatting food insecurity, but the key to continued program effectiveness is to assure that the program meets the growing demands and rising costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, while putting a sharper focus on reducing racial/ethnic inequities,” said Dr. Marc A. Cohen, one of the researchers of the report and co-director of the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston.

Food scarcity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food. “It’s a lack of access to enough good, healthy food to eat,” said Cohen.

The researchers acknowledge that with the pandemic’s impact ongoing and little current data available, the impact of food scarcity in America remains uncertain. But using data on food insecurity from the country’s last economic downtown – the Great Recession of 2008 – UMass Boston researchers were able to show who was impacted. And even after a decade, the rates of reported food insecurity did not return to pre-recession levels.

The study, which focused on people 60 or older, found that those facing food scarcity after the historic recession were younger (60 to 70 years old), female, minority, less educated, in poorer health and living in poverty. The finding also found that many were still working while facing food scarcity during the recession, a pattern which is likely to emerge in the post-pandemic world as well.

Older women also had 1.2 times higher odds of reporting food insecurity than older men, according to the findings, while non-Hispanic Black older adults and Hispanic older adults had 1.6 times and 1.2 times higher odds of facing food insecurity than their white non-Hispanics counterparts.

“It is reasonable to assume that many of the negative impacts experienced during the Great Recession will occur on a larger scale during the current pandemic-related downturn,” the study states. “While all groups will experience increases in poverty and food insecurity during a recession, older women and racial/ethnic minorities as well as those with less financial resources will be hardest hit.”

Despite the long-term impact of food insecurity after the last recession, the study found rays of hope through federal and state intervention. The role of federal programs – specifically the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – was a strong tool in the fight against food insecurity.

Again, using data from the Great Recession of 2008, the study found that the intervention of SNAP “weakened the relationship between poverty and food insecurity.”

“It’s a critical safety net,” said Cohen, “and ensures that people who are struggling can benefit not only by getting the food they need, but by also eating healthier.”

The findings are evident in the Biden administration’s recent acceleration of an unprecedented campaign to bolster hunger relief. A recent New York Times article said the administration is temporarily increasing assistance by tens of billions of dollars while setting the stage for “what officials envision as a lasting expansion of aid.”

“This underscores the importance of policies aimed at increasing both the inclusion criteria and amount of government benefits during times of economic recession,” the study concluded.

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