Iowans ‘growing bolder’ in fight against senior hunger

Are Iowans doing enough or the right things to help older residents get the nutritious and affordable food they need to thrive? That’s the question participants at the Growing Bolder Hunger Summit this week hope to answer.

It’s an important question for all states, but especially for Iowa. About 16 percent of the state’s residents are age 65 or older. Population projections show an increase to 20 percent by 2050, meaning one out of every five residents will be over 65.

The percentages are more pronounced in rural counties, where overall population has been declining. Monona County in western Iowa, for example, now has more residents over the age of 65 than it does residents under that age. Those who study state population trends believe the majority of counties — 60 of 99 — will have similar demographics by 2040.

And, just like for all age groups, nutritious food is a foundation component for overall health and independent living — a component that a significant percentage of older Iowans lack.

A woman plants vegetable seedlings in containers on March 14, 2016. An Iowa coalition will meet this week to address hunger and food insecurity among senior citizens.
A woman plants vegetable seedlings in containers on March 14, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

A 2016 survey by Feeding America indicated 81,000 older Iowans lack consistent and reliable access to healthy food.

Food insecure seniors are 60 percent more likely to develop depression, 53 percent more likely to report heart attacks, 40 percent more likely to report congestive heart failure and 200 percent more likely to develop asthma, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Higher medical costs often are the result of food insecurity, due to decreased resistance to infections and lengthened hospital stays.

The choice, according to the conference, is when and how much the public will invest. The group estimates every dollar spent feeding the hungry saves $50 in Medicaid costs.

For all of these reasons, Iowa stakeholders are coming together Tuesday to discuss the status of seniors in the Hawkeye State and the community-based collaborations aimed at reducing hunger and food insecurity.

Sponsored by the Growing Bolder Coalition, Iowa Nutrition Network, Iowa Department of Public Health and AARP, summit attendees will learn about the work of North Dakota’s Hunger Free Coalition. And Illinois professor Craig Gundersen will discuss his research on the causes and consequences of food insecurity and evaluations of food assistance programs.

“Seniors are often too embarrassed to ask for help and many of us underestimate the daily struggles of older Iowans because they receive Social Security or Medicare,” said Gerd W. Clabaugh, director of the Iowa health department.

An average monthly Social Security benefit of about $1,200 often accounts for an older Iowan’s entire budget, he said, which can result in food being sacrificed for other living expenses like rent, prescriptions or utilities. This is especially true in households in which grandparents live with grandchildren, further stretching limited food budgets.

Ann Black, state communications director for AARP, hopes her presentation on a consumer survey of older Americans commissioned by the AARP Foundation last year can offer insights into how older Iowans make food decisions. The research is a deep dive into the age 50-and-up consumer market, providing understanding on the factors that contribute to the nutritional quality of diet and purchasing habits.

A key finding of the AARP survey shouldn’t be surprising. Older Americans, like all Americans, want to make healthy food choices so they can be healthy — that is, they want to maintain physical abilities and avoid illness. Instead of desiring to be a certain weight, however, older Americans are focused on their ability to continue to live actively and independently.

The survey reveals that older Americans want fresh food choices, and that most non-perishable food choices are made after consulting food nutrition information. Age and economic status, however, appear to determine how well such nutrition labeling is understood.

As people age they show increased interest in foods that are lower in sodium, fat, calories, cholesterol and sugars. They seek out foods higher in fiber and protein.

Overall, seniors report that the healthy foods they’d most like to eat — fresh fruits and vegetables — are also the least affordable.

Which brings us back to the question: Are Iowans doing enough or the right things to help older residents access the nutritious and affordable food they need to thrive?

Without a doubt, we could be doing more. There could be more farmers markets, more collaboration between local producers and nonprofits that distribute food. We could agree that healthy food is necessary and cost-effective, and then commit to electing officials who feel the same.

Knowing that a good portion of the state already experiencing rising taxpayer burdens associated with food deserts also will soon be home to a significantly older population should prompt action.

Addressing food insecurity among older Iowans is a need that will increase in the coming years. Iowa needs a strategic plan, a map forward. I’m hoping Tuesday’s hunger summit can provide a rough draft.

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This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 7, 2017. Photo credit: Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette