Some 12 percent of seniors in Maryland and Virginia experience food insecurity, or the threat of going hungry. That number is higher in Washington, nearly 19 percent, making the capital the seventh-highest place in the country for senior citizens under threat of not having enough food. (Maryland and Virginia are 37th and 38th, respectively.)
Food insecurity “is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
According to a 2014 study, released in June by the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, 15.8 percent of seniors across the country face the threat of hunger. That’s roughly 10 million people.
“Seniors are unable to access the food they need due to less mobility, being on a fixed income and lack of an affordable grocery option near them,” said Hilary Salmon, chief of staff at the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington.
One cause of the rise of senior hunger is the aging population of baby boomers. By 2033, the Census Bureau estimates, the population of those older than 65 will outnumber those younger than 18 for the first time in the nation’s history.
Jackie DeCarlo, executive director at Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg, a food distribution and advocacy organization, added that some of her clients — 24 percent of which are senior citizens — outlive their immediate family and eventually their savings, which she called an “all-too-often struggle.”
The federal Department of Human Resources runs the Food Supplement Program, commonly known as food stamps, providing money to buy food to Americans of all ages in need.
While the average benefit for seniors (age 62 and older) is $113, only one-third of eligible seniors receive benefits from the program, according to Maryland Hunger Solutions.
“There is a lot of hunger among low-income seniors, but what makes them different is their lower participation in [FSP],” said Steven Mandel, chairman of the Critical Issues Forum, a Montgomery County-based group that raises awareness about hunger among seniors community.
The group was founded by from Temple Beth Ami, Kol Shalom in Rockville and Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda. It is sponsoring a panel discussion on food insecurity on Oct. 30 at Temple Beth Ami.
Mandel attributes the low participation in the food stamp program to the low level of benefits, among other reasons. The minimum, federally funded benefit for those eligible was $16. During the last Maryland legislative session, lawmakers agreed to raise the benefits to $30, with the state paying the difference.
Another barrier to entry has been the complexity of the application. It can be 30 pages long. The USDA is testing a pilot called the Elderly Simplified Application Project, which aims to increase participation in FSP by reducing the application’s length and requiring seniors to get recertified once every three years, instead of annually. Maryland approved ESAP last November.
Mandel said he is pleased with the changes, but said that they are only one part of a larger problem. He emphasized the need for outreach to seniors who have limited access to the Internet or don’t speak English.
“It is one thing to have these programs on the books,” Mandel said, “But it’s another to get the information out there to the people who can benefit from them.”