Finding Solutions to Senior Hunger In the Face of Growing Need and Shrinking Resources
For nearly a decade now the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH) has been commissioning and disseminating independent academic research on the causes, consequences and, unfortunately, the constant growth of senior hunger in the United States. Our first such report, published in 2008, was in fact entitled “The Cause, Consequences and Future of Senior Hunger in America.” We were proud that our Foundation was first to sponsor a comprehensive national look at the problem, even as we noted that the fact that ours was first spoke to a regrettable situation. It was evidence that not enough attention (if any) was being paid to a serious – and we believed solvable – national problem. At the same time, we hoped that once focus could be directed there, the “future” of senior hunger would be a different from the past.
It is different, but not in the manner we hoped. Our objective, of course, was to spur action to reduce and ultimately eliminate hunger. That remains our goal. We are firmly dedicated to that end. But the numbers are not encouraging. The ranks of seniors threatened by hunger have increased from 11.4 percent of the older population in 2005 to 15.5 percent in 2014. That latter percentage translates to 10.2 million individuals.
Readers who are familiar with our annual senior hunger updates might rightfully ask what is new about those facts. The question is a valid one, because those facts do not present a new picture. But they do propel us to seek new solutions, or strategies that, combined, can lead to a solution. That is one place that new comes in. NFESH’s What A Waste project is just one example of an innovative program, that is data-based and fact-driven, which is yielding positive results in those places it is being implemented. Like anything new, it was initially met with some skepticism. Now it is embraced with enthusiasm and is accepted as a vital piece of the puzzle of a new paradigm.
New partnerships, new strategies, new collaborations and new data sets and sources – in short, new thinking to lead to new approaches are other pieces. Last week in Dallas NFESH embarked on a journey toward some of those. We participated in a by- invitation-only conference entitled “500 Cities” that was sponsored jointly by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the CDC Foundation. The attendee list reads like a Who’s Who of government, academia, think tanks, medicine and health care. NFESH was the only national anti-hunger organization at the table.
The purpose of conference was to unveil the results of the “500 Cities: Local Data for Better Health” project. Here is how the sponsors describe the project: “The purpose of the 500 Cities project is to provide city- and census tract-level small area estimates for chronic disease risk factors, health outcomes, and clinical preventive service use for the largest 500 cities in the United States. These small area estimates allow cities and local health departments to better understand the burden and geographic distribution of health-related variables in their jurisdictions, and help them plan public health interventions.”
So what was the value to NFESH and the rest of the antihunger universe and why were we there? What benefit is it to local entities that work in communities to deliver services to reduce hunger among the elderly?
Here is how we would describe it: It was a significant step forward in acknowledging the indisputable connection between hunger and health. Food insecurity has been definitively demonstrated [click here to access NFESH commissioned research on the subject] to be a risk factor not only for chronic disease but also other negative health outcomes in the older population. We believe that these 500 cities estimates can not only assist jurisdictions in planning public health interventions –as is the RWJF/CDC vision — but also help States and localities in: (1) conducting effective outreach to seniors who need nutrition services and (2) in planning where those points of service should be located. That will promote prevention of both hunger and related chronic diseases.
In the next several months NFESH will continue to focus on mapping as an innovative tool in the fight against hunger. We think that it is another new strategy that can change the future of senior hunger in America.