(Source: The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2019)

Senior citizens in rural areas are just as likely as those living in urban areas to face hunger issues, according to a recent study.

In speaking to the Kentucky Senior Hunger Summit on November 17, Dr. James Ziliak, the founding director for the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, said that his latest report on food insecurity among senior citizens found that there is no discernable difference between seniors living in rural areas and urban areas.

The report, “The State of Senior Hunger in 2019”, looks at adults 60 years old and older, and whether or not they are “able to access safe, healthy and nutritionally adequate food in acceptable ways,” Ziliak said.

Ziliak, and his research partner, Dr. Craig Gundersen at Baylor University, found that in 2019, the last year for which data was available, 7.1% of Americans age 60 and over, or 5.2 million senior citizens, are food insecure, and 2.6%, or 1.9 million seniors, have very low food security.

“Continuing with historic trends documented in prior reports, we find that food insecurity is greatest among racial or ethnic minorities, those with lower incomes, those who are younger (ages 60-69), and those who are renters,” the report said.

Ziliak said those determinants are more important than where the seniors live.

“You do have higher rates of food insecurity in non-metro areas, but once I control for one of the other confounding factors, like education or low income, the rural gap goes away,” he said.

Another challenge, he said, was determining whether or not someone lived in rural areas. Since the data for the survey comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) and its Food Supplement Survey (FSS), the data only includes questions on whether or not someone is in a metro or non-metro area. Accurately identifying someone as living in a truly rural area, and not sparsely populated suburb, isn’t possible, he said.

Still, providing agencies in rural areas with the tools to best serve their populations is a challenge that needs to be addressed, said Matt Levine with the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.

Levine said his organization, NFESH, along with the Kentucky Department on Aging and Independent Living, the Georgia Division of Aging Services, and the University of Kentucky Human Development Institute, are looking at not only how agencies handled getting food to seniors during the pandemic, but what other agencies can learn from that in order to better provide for seniors now and in future public health emergencies.

“We know that if you’re in Lexington, Kentucky, or if you’re in Atlanta, Georgia, you have resources and you have the technology and you sometimes have a knowledge base that you don’t necessarily have out in rural areas,” Levine said. “So we’re building this blueprint for how to build… an emergency preparedness plan for that Senior Center or that Area Agency on Aging in rural areas that don’t necessarily have these kinds of resources and know-how.”

For agencies trying to help seniors who may face food insecurity, rural areas pose more problems than urban areas, he said.

“When we go out into rural Arkansas, it just becomes obvious the challenges that (rural agencies) have,” he said. “When there’s twenty miles between houses, it’s much more difficult to a tackle senior hunger, as opposed to in Alexandria, Virginia where you can run a route, and hit 50 houses in one mile for home-delivered meals. Twenty miles between houses and you start to have logistical challenges and transportation challenges… There are all these challenges that exist in rural America that don’t exist in metro areas.”

Utilizing the information NFESH has gained, Levine said he hopes to help senior centers in rural areas develop plans to address food needs for seniors in rural areas and to determine how to get rural seniors who don’t frequent senior centers the information they need on how to access food and other assistance.

Despite a growing economy, the percentage of seniors with food insecurity has not returned to pre-Great Recession levels, the report found, when 6.3% of American seniors faced food insecurity. Researchers said 1 in 14 seniors were food insecure in 2019. More concerning, the report said, was that the number of seniors with very low food security had risen 213% since 2001 – a problem that could lead to a host of negative health outcomes and public health challenges.

At the head of the list of states with food insecure seniors is the District of Columbia at 13.5%, followed by New Mexico at 12.4%. The top 10 states for food insecure seniors is Mississippi (11.7%), Kentucky and Texas (10.4%), West Virginia (9.9%), Louisiana (9.8%), Alabama (9.4%), Colorado (9.3%), and Nevada (8.9%). The state with the lowest percentage of seniors with food insecurity is Minnesota with 2.9%.