Food Insecurity

When chronic health issues and lack of resources combine, older adults face mounting food challenges

Nora Spencer, of Lisle, Illinois, had found herself in a difficult food situation. Faced with the constraints of a low fixed income, a lack of transportation, and multiple chronic health conditions, she rarely leaves her house. “My kids live in southern Illinois, and all my friends are so far away. It’s hard to get a ride to the store,” she says.

Spencer, 64, is one of the rising number of older adults who struggle with uncertain access to food. Food insecurity among seniors has more than doubled in the past 20 years. In Illinois, the number increased by 60% during the pandemic.

Though hunger is one possible outcome of food insecurity, the two are not the same. For some older adults, food insecurity may lead to less healthy food choices or foregoing foods they enjoy. For others, it may be more severe, resulting in skipped meals and insufficient food.

“Food insecurity among seniors can typically be attributed to having a fixed income, chronic health conditions, mobility issues, or lack of a support system,” says Amani Truman, adult protective services program supervisor at Sinai Community Institute. In her community of at-risk seniors on Chicago’s West Side, she’s seen many struggle to make ends meet and squeeze groceries in on a tight budget.

Suzanne Armato, CEO of the nonprofit West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge, says competing costs force difficult decisions for many. The pantry serves 5,600 people monthly, many of them older adults. In 2022, the pantry served a total of 9,129 seniors — 14% of its clients. “Seniors are having to make tough choices. It’s so hard for them to pay for food and their other costs, all while living on a fixed income,” Armato says.

Most area food pantries experienced a sharp increase in clients during the pandemic. While demand gradually declined in 2021, pantries now have an influx of people looking for assistance. “We’re experiencing a spike in clients, older adults in particular, as inflation has greatly increased the cost of food,” Armato says. 

Today, 1 in 12 older adults in the U.S. experiences food insecurity — a number projected to increase in the coming years as the population ages. And older adults facing uncertain access to food are at risk for problems that affect every aspect of their lives. 

Food insecurity = health insecurity

Dana Howse, a registered dietitian and manager of food and nutrition at Heartland Alliance Health in Chicago, says food insecurity has a cyclic role in her clients’ health. “If someone is struggling to acquire food and dealing with persistent hunger, it is less likely they’ll be able to choose a nutritious option. Out of necessity, they’re more likely to eat foods that are easy to prepare and often higher in calories and fat,” Howse says.

For the 95% of older adults dealing with a chronic health condition and the 80% managing two or more conditions, access to healthy food matters. “Food insecurity can exacerbate chronic illnesses and lessen the ability to manage health conditions,” Howse says. 

Food insecurity, in turn, may make accessing food even more difficult as healthcare costs and disability increase.

“Food insecurity among seniors can typically be attributed to having a fixed income, chronic health conditions, mobility issues, or lack of a support system.”

Older adults dealing with food insecurity are more likely to experience malnutrition, have additional physical and mental health conditions, and have to choose between buying food or paying for medical care and prescriptions.

They may also experience more loneliness, as lack of social support is one risk factor for food insecurity. “The inability to access healthy food absolutely impacts a person’s well-being,” Howse says.

Minority groups are at even higher risk. Black and Hispanic seniors experience food insecurity at higher rates than their white counterparts: Black seniors experience food insecurity four times more than white seniors, while Hispanics experience food insecurity at twice the rate of non-Hispanics. Neighborhood conditions and lack of transportation contribute to food access disparities along racial lines.

From food insecure, to food secure

Programs exist to help older adults in need, but older adults may struggle to find them.

“Food pantries are a good source of food, and I also recommend utilizing the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) to supplement pantry visits with items like fresh protein sources and produce,” Howse says.

But many older adults may not be aware they are eligible for these programs. Lack of computer access and social isolation makes it difficult for them to explore options. 

At the West Suburban Community Pantry, Armato’s team works to get the word out in senior communities. “We conduct targeted outreach in government-assisted housing and other senior housing areas. Word-of-mouth is also very powerful. Once one senior in the community accesses our services, they spread the word,” she says.

Spencer was lucky to hear from a neighbor about the food assistance available at West Suburban Community Pantry near her home. Through a pandemic program coordinated with DoorDash, the pantry delivered food to her home. “I’m not really computer savvy,” she says, “but my friend helped me put everything in online, and they bring the food to me. It’s really been a help.”

Besides providing food, West Suburban Community Pantry connected Spencer to a network of volunteers and staff who genuinely care about her well-being. When the program with DoorDash ended, volunteers stepped in to ensure Spencer continued to receive food deliveries. “They’re like another family to me. The people are so nice; it doesn’t feel like you’re begging,” she says. “It really makes you feel someone cares.”

Older adults who reach out for assistance often receive more than just nutritious food. Seeing a friendly face and talking with someone who cares can be nourishing, too.

Food Access Resources

Cook County:

Greater Chicago Food Depository:

Chicago Family & Support Services Seniors Services:

Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Chicago:

Lake County:

Family Service of Lake County:

ElderCARE Lake County:

Meals on Wheels Northeastern Illinois:

Northern Illinois Food Bank:
630-443-6910 or

DuPage County:

West Suburban Community Pantry:

DuPage Senior Citizens Council:

Google “food pantry near me” for partners in your area.

Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2023 print issue.

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