Health

Kentucky has the highest rate of food insecurity for people in their 50s. That’s according to a new report from nonprofit Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization.

The report, based on a survey taken in 2017, shows that 18.6 percent of Kentuckians 50-59 years old were considered food insecure that year. That’s compared to the nationwide rate of 11.3 percent.

In Louisville, 16 percent of people surveyed in that age group said they didn’t have enough to eat.

The report released Tuesday doesn’t point to a specific reason that the rate of food insecurity is higher among people in their 50s compared to older adults. But Tamara Sandberg, the executive director of food bank association Feeding Kentucky, said one factor might be that many federal food aid programs are for people 60 and over. So the younger older adults may not have as many resources.

“Like the community supplemental food program, the food boxes that are distributed by pantries to senior citizens, 50- to 59-year-olds don’t qualify. So they’re missing out on that source of food,” she said.

Unemployment and disability could also be factors. Nationwide, 30 percent of people in their 50s who were food insecure said they were unemployed, and 26.8 percent said they were disabled.

Sandberg said an individual’s family situation could also play a role.  

“We’re also seeing in that same population of 50- to 59-year-olds an increase in the rate of divorce and separation, and we know marriage is a protective factor for food and security,” Sandberg said. “It makes sense when you have two breadwinners putting food on the table, there’s more food to go around.”

She said some people go without enough food because they are worried about a family member or loved one having enough to eat.

“Somebody in the household has to go without consistent access to enough food, so it could be somebody skipping a meal or watering down milk or going without so that another person in the household can eat,” Sandberg said.

While there are more services for people age 60 and older, a complimentary report from the same authors shows that food insecurity is also a major issue for Kentuckians over 60. The rate of food insecurity among Kentuckians 60 and over — 8.4 percent — is also higher than the nationwide rate of 7.7 percent. In Louisville the rate is even higher at 9.6 percent.

64-year-old James Davis is one of these people. He lives in Louisville in an apartment complex for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. He used to work in factories before he had to have surgery to get both knees replaced.

Davis said he often isn’t able to afford to eat a balanced meal, which is one measure of food insecurity. He relies on $1,000 a month from Social Security and receives $15 a month in food stamps.

That’s another problem for people that are in the bracket we’re in as far as income: it is expensive for us to eat fresh foods,” Davis said. “There’s a cost problem for us.”

Nationwide, people 60 and over who had an income below $12,060 – the poverty threshold in 2017 – were much more likely to report being food insecure, according to the Feeding America report. For these folks, 28.7 percent said they were food insecure, compared to 3.4 percent of people who had an income twice the poverty threshold.

And not having enough healthy food costs people in other ways, not just economically. Davis has high blood pressure and pre-diabetes, and he tries to eat healthy food. His doctor tells him to cut back on salt. Davis really likes healthier food like kale salad and stir-fries, but his income is limiting.

That’s the other problem we got when we don’t have fresh fruits and vegetables and things like that,” Davis said. “You eat more starchy, unhealthy food. And then you gain weight.”

Sandberg with Feeding Kentucky said food insecurity is tied to negative health outcomes.

Ninety-one percent of our households [said] that they had to purchase inexpensive, unhealthy food to feed their families,” Sandberg said pointing to a survey of the nonprofit’s  member food banks. “So of course, that has negative consequences on their health.”

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.