Food insecurity for Black elders is an escalating crisis with untold costs to individuals and society at large. It’s time to demand a more dignified path for this often invisible group.
I met Henrietta, a retired Washington, D.C. resident in her 60s in a meeting of the Client Leadership Council at the Capital Area Food Bank. I was there doing research for the University of the District of Columbia and I was struck by her continued advocacy around ensuring her neighbors have access to adequate and nutritious food and the infrastructure they need to create a resilient community.
Henrietta (not her real name) has a bright presence and speaks often of “opportunity,” even though she, her family, and her community are living through some of the darkest times in terms of not having the resources they needs from day to day.
She is diabetic and has been advised by her doctor to seek out vegetables, healthy proteins, and whole grains—but given her limited income, she struggles to afford those foods. Instead, she has resorted to buying Nestlé Boost, a drink designed to help her control her glucose intake. She buys a case every month and relies on it to fill the nutrition gaps in her diet. “A lot of stuff that I need to eat, like vegetables and stuff, I don’t get it. So, at night, when I get ready to go to bed, to keep my sugar from dropping too low, I drink a Boost,” Henrietta told me.
“It really makes me feel bad because I’m used to buying what I need,” she added. Now, when she goes to the store, the prices of gas and food are so high that she finds herself putting back a number of basic items—Spam, bread, eggs, milk—because they’re just not in her budget. Grocery prices have gone up and Henrietta only receives a limited amount of federal support; even with the increased support during the pandemic, she continued to face challenges accessing a balanced diet.
“A lot of time when I didn’t have any meat, I would get me a couple of eggs, and eat them [instead], but now they’re almost always what I put down,” she said.
Henrietta is just one of many Black seniors in urban areas facing similar struggles. In the kaleidoscope of modern America, where supermarkets overflow with abundance and food trends flash across social media, a disquieting truth lingers in the shadows: An alarming number of seniors can’t secure sufficient and nutritious meals.
The latest State of Senior Hunger report from the nonprofit Feeding America revealed that 5.5 million seniors (60 and up) and 3.8 million older adults (50-59) experienced food insecurity in 2021. At that time, Black seniors and older adults were 3.8 times and 2.5 times more likely to experience food insecurity compared to their white counterparts, respectively.
This isn’t just about hunger; it’s a systemic problem rooted in socioeconomic disparities, geographic limitations, and ingrained barriers. The pervasive nature of food insecurity among Black seniors demands our attention and collective action, as it underscores the depth of inequality embedded within urban landscapes. Many Black seniors find themselves trapped in food deserts with limited transportation options.
Predominantly Black neighborhoods have fewer supermarkets, leading to restricted options for fresh and nutritious foods. The consequence is a reliance on convenience stores and fast-food outlets, perpetuating a cycle of poor nutrition and health disparities. Socioeconomic factors compound the problem. Limited financial resources mean that Black seniors are often forced to choose between paying for life-saving medications and nutritious meals.
And while many of these seniors and older adults may not be visible to people outside their communities, it’s our responsibility to change the structure that allows these patterns to continue. Often, it’s easy to overlook the disparities that exist in our backyard. Here in Washington, D.C., I’ve heard from a number of seniors who don’t have cars and must travel outside Wards 7 and 8 to get decent groceries. If they don’t have friends and family members close by to assist them, getting enough healthy food can feel nearly impossible.
It’s time to break the chains of food insecurity and demand a more dignified path toward support for Black seniors. In the wake of a fast-moving world, we must take a step back to unpack the current crises to create impactful opportunities for change and other critical developments.
Larger Implications of Food Insecurity for Black Seniors
The impact of food insecurity on the health and well-being of Black seniors is profound. Inadequate nutrition is intrinsically linked to an increased susceptibility to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Black older adults experience those illnesses—and the lower life expectancies that go along with them—at a significantly higher rate than their white counterparts.
According to the American Geriatrics Society’s Health in Aging website, the most frequent causes of death for older Black women are heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. The vicious cycle of poor health further exacerbates these women’s struggles, creating a scenario where the most vulnerable continue to experience a web of preventable health issues. Uncertainty about where the next meal will come from also has an emotional and mental toll that we cannot underestimate for seniors, often leading to anxiety and depression.
The repercussions of this crisis extend beyond individuals to permeate the fabric of society. Reduced productivity and elevated healthcare costs become the collateral damage of a population struggling to meet basic nutritional needs. The impact is not only felt in the health of our citizens but also in the economic burden borne by taxpayers. When diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity escalate, people often end up in emergency rooms and hospitals.
According to recent studies, the economic cost of treating these illnesses amounts to billions of dollars annually, placing a significant strain on public healthcare systems and taxpayer funds. Addressing the nutritional well-being of our population is not just a matter of individual health; it is a fiscal imperative for the sustainability of our healthcare infrastructure and the economic prosperity of our nation. Lawmakers must recognize the interconnectedness of these issues and respond strategically.
A Path Forward: Solutions and Initiatives
Now is the time to confront and dismantle the barriers that perpetuate food insecurity among Black seniors. We need to advocate for a shift in perspective—from viewing Black seniors as victims of circumstance to recognizing their resilience and agency and naming the racist, capitalist system that has long extracted their labor without meeting their needs. It underscores the urgency not only to address immediate food insecurity but also to rectify the systemic injustices that perpetuate inequities among Black seniors.
There are some successful community-driven programs doing this work. For example, the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research has created the Healthier Black Elders Center, which is ensuring Black seniors in the region are getting fed and working to reduce health disparities through research and education. There is a low representation of older African American adults in research and the program also aims to increase their participation.
As the echoes of the pandemic linger, the disparities among different populations of seniors are still present, exacerbated by the fact that pandemic-era assistance in now the rearview mirror. Along with rising inflation, the loss of those supports has intensified the economic challenges faced by seniors, particularly those in the Black community.
Notable organizations such as the National Council on Aging, AARP, Justice in Aging, Senior Medicare Patrol, and the Long-Term Care Community Coalition are advocating for policies that support seniors each and every day. They’re calling on lawmakers to recognize the silent struggle of Black seniors and actively engage in solutions.
If we want to ensure that Black seniors have access to the nutritious food they need, the following key actions are critical:
Increase Improvements to Quality Healthcare and Intervention Initiatives
Access to affordable long-term care services is crucial for improving health outcomes and addressing food access challenges among Black seniors. These services, empower Black seniors to maintain independence and give them control over their meals. Critical initiatives such as Food is Medicine programs and produce prescription programs are targeted strategies designed to connect healthcare institutions at the national level that will wider efforts to improve health through food. They have also been shown to improve participants’ quality of life, reduce work in hospitals, and cut healthcare costs, according to experts studying Food is Medicine efforts.
Expand SNAP and Other Federal Nutrition Programs
This would help reach the millions of older adults eligible for SNAP but not enrolled while also helping current recipients maximize the monthly assistance they receive from the program. Only three out of five older adults who are qualified end up enrolling in the SNAP program. Many others receive only the minimum benefit of $23 a month. Recently, the end of the public health emergency triggered a sharp decrease in SNAP support for millions of people. Many saw the assistance they receive drop by $250 per month. Policymakers should focus on the long-overdue adjustment in benefits to increase the minimum monthly amount for older adults on fixed incomes. This would also help alleviate financial burdens related to both healthcare and medical expenses.
Dial in Support for Nutritious Foods
In addition, federal programs should shift the focus from just ensuring food access to ensuring equitable access to nutrient-rich foods. Such an approach could have a profound impact on promoting healthy aging and reducing the prevalence of chronic diseases among Black seniors. In the long run, we need to take the new USDA-defined concept of Nutrition Security much further.
I was raised in a family of resilient Black seniors; in my formative years I witnessed their indomitable spirit amidst profound struggles. Their daily battles with food insecurity—and the moments of quiet dignity—were embedded into the fabric of my childhood, a poignant reminder of the harsh realities faced by many in our community.
These experiences have etched in my heart the imperative to delve deeper into the intricate challenges that contribute to food insecurity among Black seniors. It goes beyond statistics; it’s about the lived experiences of those who many of us hold dear. Let us use our collective empathy and determination to propel us toward meaningful, sustainable solutions.
As a food justice advocate, I want to see today’s Black seniors break the chains of food insecurity—not just for themselves but for every grandparent, aunt, and uncle who has weathered the storm before them. The time for comprehensive, systemic change is now.
Mya Price is a Washington, D.C.-based researcher focusing on racial equity and food justice. Her research has identified socioeconomic determinants contributing to the Black–white food insecurity gap at state and county levels, and her qualitative studies shed light on the disparities older black adults face in accessing food resources in U.S. metropolitan areas.