Op-Ed | How the COVID-19 pandemic made seniors more food insecure than ever before

Senior couple having serious discussion over lunch at home
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Thanksgiving’s often a time for generations of family to come together, eat their favorite family meals, and spend some quality time together. But for many, this time of year is a painful reminder of the isolation they face and the food insecurity they struggle with. In fact, one in eight older New Yorkers are unsure where their next meal will come from. 

The pandemic shined a light on the reality of senior isolation, many of whom also face a lack of regular access to food. We can and must do more as a society to fight this pervasive issue, especially around the holidays. 

Food insecurity is a growing issue in New York and the United States that particularly afflicts low income individuals and seniors. Across the US, 7.3 million older adults are struggling with reliable access to nutritious food. Older adults of color, as well as older adults with disabilities, are three times as likely to be food insecure.

There is a proven array of negative physical and mental health outcomes that seniors face due to food insecurity. Food insecure seniors were more likely to have depression (262%), asthma (78%), diabetes (74%), and congestive heart failure (71%), further adding to their health struggles.

Across New York, older adults are often overlooked as one of our city’s most vulnerable groups, causing needed programs to be underfunded meaning older New Yorkers don’t get the resources they need.

Since the onset of COVID, the economic fallout, and lack of federal financial response, funding shortages have been seen across the board in different sectors among the nonprofit community. This is especially evident in food pantries, soup kitchens, and mobile pantries. They have had the biggest blow with 35% of their doors closing after the pandemic hit. 

New York must be a city that enables older adults to age with dignity and purpose. That means long-term investment in programs that feed our seniors and most vulnerable, like Citymeals on Wheels, Foodbank for NYC, NYC Foundation for Senior Citizens, Encore Community Services, NY Common Pantry, and more.

The pandemic has only heightened the urgency to act. Already facing food insecurity and isolation, the pandemic exacerbated both. Older adults who were already homebound received even fewer visitors and less access to both their community and the support of the outside world. For many who were previously able to support themselves, the pandemic made it dangerous to leave their homes to acquire food, leaving them dependent on others.

To help address this issue among older adults in NYC, JASA, the go-to agency serving older adults in NYC, has established programming that provides home-delivered meals to its residents. Through this program, JASA provided over 1 million meals to New York seniors last year alone. 

The number and operation itself is staggering and saves lives. But while food delivery workers have always been trained to monitor for signs of issues and when to call 911, JASA’s delivery team has taken on a more pronounced role of checking in and being the wellness lifeline for many older adults, for whom the JASA staff are the only people they’ll interact with in-person.

For seniors who couldn’t and still can’t leave their homes due to the pandemic, the nutritious meals and the delivery staff provide a bridge to the outside world. The food provides them with the nutrients to survive, the staff provides them an opportunity, sometimes the only chance in their day, to converse with someone. This isn’t just a chat to break up the day, but it also supports their mental health and gives the staff a chance to ensure the older adults are safe and healthy by observing any potential signs of need. 

As older adults continue to become a larger percentage of our population, ensuring our seniors have access to nutritious, tasty food will remain a critical challenge for New York City and the rest of the country. This holiday season, we must not forget those isolated in their homes. Everyone can step up in helping our most vulnerable neighbors. Whether it is donating food directly or supporting meals programs, or just checking in on older New Yorkers, we can make sure this holiday season, everyone is connected and no one goes hungry.

Tania Collazo is the Director of the Queens Home Delivered Meals Program and Chef Supervisor at JASA.