July 24, 2018

Food Insecurity Among Seniors In Arkansas

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By Jacquie Rainey, DrPH, MCHES
Department of Health Sciences,
University of Central Arkansas


Students from the Nutritional Services Administration class in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Central Arkansas are learning how to plan and serve a meal for clients at the Faulkner County Senior Center. The Faulkner County Senior Center is part of the Faulkner County council on Aging, Inc. Its mission is to meet the social, nutrition and transportation needs of seniors. The partnership between the senior center and UCA students is a win for both groups. The students get real world practice in meal preparation and delivery, the seniors are fed a nutritious meal, and everyone has a good time. Any food that is not eaten the night of the theme meal is portioned for use the next day to serve to home delivered meal participants throughout Faulkner County. The event in April was centered on the theme of a 1950’s diner and included bingo and ‘50’s attire.

The Faulkner County Senior Center is one of the many organizations in the state that is working to combat food insecurity among older adults. Food insecurity is when someone is unable to acquire nutritionally adequate food in sufficient quantities and in socially-acceptable ways.1 Arkansas ranks in the top tier nationally in the proportion of older adults (currently about 20% of all Arkansans over the age of 60) who are living with food insecurity.2 Food insecurity is associated with many negative health effects, including nutritional inadequacy, poor overall health, extended hospital stays, cardiovascular disease, and worsening of chronic conditions. These health consequences have significant costs in terms of quality of life and financial impact.1

For older adults, food insecurity is primarily an issue of access. Many areas of Arkansas, especially rural areas, are considered ‘food deserts’ where a large portion of the population does not live near a grocery store. Financial hardship is another common cause of food insecurity among seniors. People on fixed incomes have a difficult time purchasing the amount of healthful food that they need. Reduced mobility may produce barriers to older adults shopping for food or leaving home to secure a meal.  In Arkansas, 21% of older adults have a health problem that requires the use of specialized equipment such as a wheelchair or walker. 1 Additionally, lack of access to transportation or the inability to drive due to physical limitations can significantly contribute to food insecurity.

Food insecurity is more common among women, minorities, individuals without a spouse, those who use alcohol or tobacco, have high blood pressure, diabetes or depression, those who have been hospitalized or visited an emergency room in the previous year, and grandparents caring for grandchildren. 3,1 Efforts should be made to recognize the risk factors for food insecurity and to connect older adults with resources within the community. Resources include but are not limited to: the Older American Act Meal Program that provides meals at sites administered by the Area Agencies on Aging (AAA), local nonprofit organizations such as the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the Arkansas Foodbank Network, and the Arkansas Rice Depot, and the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). One example of how Arkansans can make a difference is letting seniors in Northwest Arkansas know about the Double Your Dollars (DYD) Programs at Farmers’ Markets. Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program participants may receive a ‘match’ for purchases made at participating NWA farmers’ markets with their vouchers. Participants receive market coupons that are to be used like cash to purchase fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, dairy, jam/jelly, honey and food-producing plants. If the market is participating in the DYD project, participants can receive a 1:1 match in market coupons.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits are reported to be underutilized by older adults.1 The recommendation from the Senior Hunger in Arkansas report was to increase the number of seniors who participate in the SNAP program thus providing access to sufficient amounts of healthful foods for Arkansas seniors.1 The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance quoted Tomiko Townly, SNAP outreach director as saying, “We often see eligible seniors who don’t know they can receive food assistance or believe they will be taking food from those who are worse off than they are, so they are opting instead to cut back on medications to afford food.” 2

The threat of hunger among seniors in Arkansas is a continuing challenge. Food insecurity is associated with numerous poor health outcomes that can lead to additional challenges for the individual and the healthcare system. An avenue to potentially reduce the burden of disease on these individuals and the healthcare system is to ameliorate the problem of food insecurity in America.4 UCA is happy to have a small part in helping to do this.

  1. Division of Aging and Adult Services, Arkansas Department of Human Services. Senior Hunger in Arkansas. https://arhungeralliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Senior-Hunger-in-Arkansas-2014-FINAL.pdf. Accessed June 5, 2018.
  2. Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. (2018). Senior Hunger. https://www.arhungeralliance.org/programs/senior-hunger/. Published 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018.
  3. American Geriatrics Society (2018) How common is food insecurity among older adults? https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-03/ags-hci030818.php. Published March 8, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018.
  4. Ziliak J, Gunderson G. The state of senior hunger in America 2015: An Annual report. Feeding America and the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger. http://www.feedingamerica.org/research/senior-hunger-research/state-of-senior-hunger-2015.pdf. Published August 16, 2017. Accessed June 5, 2018.