We aren’t getting any younger. Between 2012 and 2050, like many industrialized countries, the U.S. will experience considerable growth in its older population. By 2050, the population aged 65 and older is projected to be 83.7 million, almost double its estimated population of 43.1 million in 2012 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014). This dramatic increase is due largely in part to the “baby boomer” generation, as they began turning 65 in 2011 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014).
Age is the main risk factor for the prevalent diseases of developed countries, including cancer and cardiovascular disease (WHO, 2015). Although aging is inevitable, the risks of developing these common health conditions and the severity of certain illnesses can be mitigated with better nutrition. Unfortunately, a growing number of older Americans are food insecure. Food insecurity is defined as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways” (USDA, 2017). Research collected from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey revealed that between 2001 and 2011, the number of food insecure senior citizens more than doubled. In 2011, 4.8 million seniors, or 8.4 percent of the senior population faced food insecurity (NFESH, 2013). These food insecure seniors consumed fewer calories and lower quantities of all 10 key nutrients than their food secure counterparts. Consequently, food insecure seniors are 53 percent more likely to report a heart attack, 52 percent more likely to develop asthma, and 40 percent more likely to report an experience of congestive heart failure (NFESH, 2013). In addition to these physical health issues, mental health is also jeopardized, putting food insecure seniors at a 60 percent greater risk of experiencing depression than their food secure counterparts (NFESH, 2013). This increase in senior food insecurity is a major public health issue and continues to grow as our nation continues to age. Fortunately, the same study concluded that food assistance networks can play a major role in combating this issue. For instance, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (GPCFB) in Duquesne, PA, where I serve, plays a vital role in addressing food insecurity.
As a Nutrition Educator on the Health & Wellness Team, I provide food and nutrition resources, education, and interventions to help those we serve prevent and manage diet-related chronic disease and stabilize their lives. One program that the GPCFB participates in is the USDA’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which offers nutrition assistance to low-income seniors. Each month, volunteers pack CSFP “Senior Boxes” with healthy non-perishable foods that are sent out to qualifying seniors sites. We currently serve 6,402 seniors at more than 200 sites throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania (GPCFB, 2017).
As part of my role as an educator, I am developing a senior nutrition education series to be piloted in the Spring of 2018 in senior independent living sites that receive the Senior Boxes. I will offer live cooking demonstrations for the residents. The recipes developed will utilize ingredients from the boxes, as well as fresh produce made accessible to most seniors through the GPCFB’s free Produce to People, which is a large scale produce distribution program. My recipes, like all recipes developed and published at the GPCFB, adhere to nutrition guidelines limiting the amount of salt, fat, cholesterol, and added sugars used. Diets low in these categories can decrease the risk of chronic disease (DHHS, 2016). The meals I cook in my demonstrations at the senior sites will also be nutrient-dense, notably in sources of vegetarian iron and protein, to meet common senior nutrient deficiencies (NFESH, 2013).
Increasing nutrition education and outreach efforts to the vulnerable senior population that the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank serves is one step toward combating this serious public health issue. Helping these seniors get access to nutritionally adequate food, through the myriad of food bank programs, and educating them about the best and easiest ways to prepare these foods is key. Furthermore, offering interactive classes for seniors that may be living alone can bring residents together and make healthy eating a fun, social experience. I look forward to piloting this senior nutrition series, raising more awareness about food insecurity during my time serving with the National Health Corps, and getting to know the seniors in Allegheny County.
-Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. (2017). Senior Boxes (CSFP). Retrieved from: https://www.pittsburghfoodbank.org/csfp/
-Life Sciences Research Office, S.A. Andersen, ed., "Core Indicators of Nutritional State for Difficult to Sample Populations," The Journal of Nutrition 120:1557S-1600S, 1990.)
-National Foundation to End Senior Health and Feeding America. (2013). “Spotlight on Senior Health: Adverse Health Outcomes of Food Insecure Older Americas”. Retrieved from: https://www.hungernwnc.org/about-hunger/Spotlight%20on%20Senior%20Health...
-U.S. Census Bureau. (2014). “An Aging Nation: The Older Population in the United States”. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/p25-1140.pdf
-U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2015). “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020. Retrieved from: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/
-United States Department of Agriculture. (2017). “Food Security in the U.S.”. Retrieved from: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-...
-World Health Organization. (2015). “World Report on Ageing and Health”. Retrieved from: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/186463/1/9789240694811_eng.pdf
This post was written by NPHC member Madeline Barnes.
Madeline serves at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank as a Health Educator.