Older Americans in D.C. Continue to go Hungry During COVID-19

By Melissa Jensen

In November 2017, the World Health Organization and AARP recognized Washington D.C. as one of the few worldwide “Top Age-Friendly Cities”, which WHO defines as “one that is inclusive, accessible and encourages active and healthy living for all residents.” This was awarded after a five-year plan was implemented to improve living for older adults in a variety of sectors in the District. In the last ten years, the number of Washingtonians over the age of 60 has grown by nearly 15,000, reaching a total of 117,223 residents, making older adults an increasing priority for policy makers and funding. Despite all of this, there is one glaringly large problem for older adults in D.C. – hunger. May is Older Americans Month and Mayor Muriel Bowser will release her FY 2021 Proposed Budget on May 12, starting the budget process with the Mayor, agencies, and D.C. Council. Addressing senior food insecurity be a top priority. (Note: since publication, the D.C. Mayor’s budget release was delayed to May 18, 2020.)

Senior hunger in D.C. has increased dramatically in the past five years. D.C. is #4 in the nation for senior food insecurity and #1 for marginal food insecurity. In 2015, we were not even in the top 10 states in terms of the threat of senior hunger. 11.1% of D.C.’s nearly 120,000 seniors are currently food insecure, while 20.1% are marginally food insecure. That means nearly a third of D.C. seniors are experiencing anxiety about affording enough food, with many having to reduce the quantity or quality of food consumed as a result. 

By sharp contrast to D.C., only 4.5% of seniors in the D.C. metro area (which includes parts of Maryland and northern Virginia) are food insecure. This indicates that senior hunger is an issue resulting from D.C.’s continuing problems of income disparities and racial inequality, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 emergency. In April, we discussed how the impact of COVID-19 was compounded by race and socio-economic status, and noted that data was emerging that African-Americans were disproportionality affected by the novel coronavirus. Since then, the data has become even more stark. Black residents make up nearly 50% of D.C. COVID-19 positive cases and 80% of deaths. The majority of cases and deaths come from Ward 8, D.C.’s lowest income and Blackest ward. 

Older adults are also suffering from COVID-19. While they only make up about 30% of positive cases, 68% of deaths are for those ages 50 and over. This crisis augments the food insecurity already plaguing this same age group. The lack of adequate food in older adults is associated with: poor dietary intake, poor/fair health status, diabetes, hypertension, anemia, functional limitations, depression, gum disease, & other poor health outcomes. In addition, the economic restraints that come with food insecurity may cause older adults to skip meals, have difficulty paying bills, or cut back on vital medications. While all older adults are at risk for COVID-19, food insecure older adults are especially vulnerable. 

We know that food insecurity for older adults is not an issue of a lack of programs or resources; many senior food and nutrition programs currently exist, including senior congregate meals (which pivoted to frozen meal delivery during COVID-19), Grocery Plus, the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, home-delivered meals, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and more. The Age-Friendly D.C. Task Force also has a nutrition sub-committee (which D.C. Hunger Solutions advises on), that works diligently on addressing food insecurity in older adults. However, despite the existence of these programs, the numbers continue to rise. There is clearly a disconnect between the programs offered and the people who need them the most.  

Addressing senior food insecurity cannot wait.  We call on the D.C. Council, Mayor Bowser, the D.C. Food Policy Council, and the Department of Aging and Community Living to make sure combatting senior hunger is a priority in the D.C. budget. For D.C. to truly be a Top Age-Friendly City, our older residents must be healthy and not hungry.