As we approach Thanksgiving and the winter holiday season, some people often joke that they are preparing for a “season of eating.” Whether it is holiday parties with seemingly endless trays of appetizers and wine; family dinners complete with turkey coupled with overflowing sides of stuffing, potatoes and vegetables and decadent desserts; or just the extra cookies and candies that are available, food is a significant part of the season. Overflowing holiday plates are, however, far from the reality for many. For countless older Mainers, food insecurity is sadly a more accurate reality.
Recent data detailing the degree of food insecurity for seniors in Maine is concerning. In 2017, 14 percent of Maine seniors were food insecure — that translates into about 45,600 residents. Another 56,000 Maine seniors face marginal food security and are at risk for going hungry. And there is a good potential that this number will grow, as the population continues to age. In less than eight years, one in four residents in Maine will be 65 years of age or older.
Tied directly to food insecurity among seniors is a lack of income and diminished social supports. In my new book, “ Waiting on Retirement: Aging and Economic Insecurity in Low Wage Work,” I chronicle the experiences of older workers as they struggle to economically survive and prepare for a future when they no longer can work. The reality for far too many older restaurant workers (and other low-wage workers) is that while they may serve meals in restaurants to others, they often do not have enough to eat themselves. They do not earn enough to cover their basic needs. Many of these workers earn sub-minimum wages, dependent on customers’ tips to survive. As rent and health care costs rise, skipping meals is often the only way to make ends meet. Those with a sympathetic restaurant owner may be able to get a free meal while at working; others just go hungry.
Since income, be it from work or Social Security, is too often not enough to cover expenses, many seniors — those working and those that cannot work for a variety of reasons — depend on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for food support. Research released this month from the Food Research Action Center found that 12.5 percent of Maine households with seniors over 60 years old received SNAP benefits with greater percentages living in rural Maine counties (14.4 percent) than in metro Maine counties (11.2 percent). Access to SNAP not only helps seniors better afford food, but also helps bridge economic insecurity gaps and improves health diminishing the array of issues that can arise from addressing malnutrition.
SNAP programs are, however, in danger of being reduced. Disagreements between the House and Senate farm bills remain. The House bill increases work requirements for recipients, expands the administrative bureaucracy, and imposes greater sanctions on violations. These changes would put undue burdens on both recipients and states. In contrast, the Senate bill, which passed with bipartisan support, strengthens the current provisions in SNAP and improves the application process for elderly Americans allowing states to test methods of verifying eligibility to reduce costs.
Prior to the midterm election, the bills were not reconciled, stalling the reauthorization of the farm bill even further beyond its Sept. 30 expiration date.
The growth of hunger among seniors is not unique to Maine. Nationally, we are seeing higher numbers of seniors struggling with food insecurity. The new Congress, with a Democratic House majority, must address food insecurity with effective policy and an expansive SNAP program lest the surge of upcoming seniors put the country and the state on the edge of a hunger crisis. A renewed commitment to support programs such as SNAP will enable older low-wage workers and seniors in Maine and throughout the country to supplement their Social Security income and what savings they may have to remain safe and fed.
Mary Gatta is an associate professor of sociology at CUNY-Guttman. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the New Jersey chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network.