“Are you hungry?” It is a familiar question. We have all had it asked of us at one time or another – or more likely hundreds if not thousands of times – by our mothers as they called us to dinner, or by friends in college wanting to take a study break. While most of us have probably answered “yes,” we weren’t really hungry. In fact, we surmise that few, if any of us, have ever experienced real hunger or have been “very low food secure” as researchers and academics would refer to it. For that, we can be thankful. At the same time we ought to acknowledge that we don’t know hunger from experience and perhaps do not even know personally anyone who has. But that doesn’t get us off the hook. To the contrary, it ought to reel us in.
What do we mean? For more than a decade now, NFESH has been commissioning and disseminating research about senior hunger. We routinely write about it in this space. In our last blog (What’s in the Numbers?) we even went so far as to explain what the various terms used to characterize food security meant. We continue to believe it is important to know what the numbers refer to; but we have arrived at the conclusion that it is crucial to understand that the issue is about people, not numbers. People, real people in real need. We are also convinced that how they got there does not matter, but how we can help get them out does. We have said before that we must do a better job of reaching and engaging those in the most need. So, how do we identify those folks we aren’t serving and don’t know? We work to reach people that we know, by virtue of demographics and circumstance, are likely to be at risk.
Here is what we know about very low food secure (VLFS) seniors in 2016. Economic status plays a big role. More than 68 percent of VLFS elders had incomes below 200 percent of the Poverty Line. Nearly 67 percent were between the ages of 60 and 69; more than 62 percent were not married; almost 33 percent were disabled and over 45 percent were retired. Race played a significant role with white seniors having food insecurity rates less than half of those of African-Americans and with Hispanics having rates nearly twice that of non-Hispanics. Those are the facts. Here is another, and it is astonishing: in 2016, the number of VLFS seniors had increased 200 percent compared to 2001.
That last statement is a clear and compelling call to action! It is not enough simply to know the facts. We must use them. Clearly, many of the demographics are not factors we can modify. But we can, and must, deliberately focus outreach efforts on those individuals that the data show us are at risk. That is the only way to ensure that they are served by the programs designed to assist them. And that’s what we see as serving the common good.