Populations of Specific Concern
Taking into consideration the disparities in household characteristics between those who experience hunger and those who do not, we focused on seven specific groups that are especially vulnerable to hunger: seniors, single parent families with young children, veterans and active duty military, people with disabilities, American Indians, people affected by high incarceration rates, and immigrants.
The number of older adults will increase over the next few decades, and if we do not change the way we assist seniors, the number of seniors who experience hunger will increase significantly.
In 2014, 3.2% of households with seniors aged 65 and older (1.1 million households) and 3.8% (480,000 households) of households with seniors living alone were hungry. Many seniors who live alone depend on organizations such as Meals on Wheels.
Among adults aged 40 and older, those living in multigenerational households have higher rates of hunger (5.5%) than those who do not (3.1%). Hunger rates among multigenerational households have also increased substantially over the past decade.
|Multigenerational: a family headed by an adult householder aged 40 or older and with three generations (grandparent, parent, child) or grandparent and grandchild with no adult parent (so-called skipped generation).
Compared to seniors who do not experience hunger, seniors experiencing hunger are three times as likely to suffer from depression, 50% more likely to have diabetes, and 60% more likely to have congestive heart failure or a heart attack. In addition, 20% to 50% of patients admitted to the hospital are malnourished and thus compromised in their ability to fight illness and complications; these patients are predominately low-income/ Medicaid patients 65 and older. Readmissions among this group costs the health care system approximately $25 billion annually, and 70% of this cost is for return trips that might not have been necessary if patients had received proper care, including proper nutrition. Programs such as Meals on Wheels (both pre-admission and post-discharge), as well as greater attention to early nutrition assessment and intervention are critical to preventing complications and lowering costs. These interventions in both health care settings and the community are not meeting growing need: in many communities, there is a waiting list for Meals on Wheels and similar programs.
Single Parent Families with Young Children
Substantial research has found that a substantial percentage of young children in food insecure households experience negative social, emotional, and cognitive outcomes.
About 6% (4.4 million individuals) of individuals in households with children under age 6 are in households that report hunger; the rate is the same for households with children under 18 (9.5 million individuals). These rates are slightly higher than the percent of individuals in all households that report hunger (5.5%, 17.2 million individuals). But the problem is much worse in households with only one adult. Among married couple families with children, the rate of hunger among individuals is 3.5% (3.9 million individuals), whereas for households headed by a single mother, the rate is 13.2% (4.7 million individuals), and for households headed by a single father, the rate is 7.2% (0.8 million individuals).
Although adult caregivers (including grandparents) often try to mitigate the effects of hunger on their children by reducing their own food intake, such reductions affect the caregivers’ health and capabilities, which in turn affects their ability to juggle parenting, work, and self-care. We heard this reflected in testimony from single parents during our field hearings.
Given the serious consequences of hunger for families with young children and children in the sensitive period of brain development, single parent families merit particular attention, care, and support to lay the foundation for optimal child development for school performance, good health, and participation in the workforce.
"The cycle of hunger has never left my family. My siblings and I lived with my mom growing up, and we struggled with hunger. When she died, we went to live with my dad. And we struggled then. The stress of having no food affected him. He couldn't deal. He was so overwhelmed he started drinking instead of eating, and he sent us down South to our aunts, thinking we'd be better off. But we still were hungry there. And on top of that, we were missing our dad, and missing our mom. Hunger destroys people. It destroys families."
– Tangela Fedrick, Witnesses to Hunger (Washington, DC)
Veterans and Active Duty Military
America’s veterans and active duty military have provided and continue to provide our country with outstanding service to protect our freedom and security.
However, there is evidence that both groups have experiences with food insecurity and have inconsistent or inadequate access to nutrition assistance. In a 2012 study of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 12% reported hunger. Approximately 1%–2% of active duty military members (more than 20,000) and 7% of veterans (1.6 million veterans) receive SNAP benefits. Hunger tends to occur among the lower enlisted ranks, especially those with multiple dependents.
These issues are concerning, yet the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, and the USDA provide little data on the extent of hunger among active duty military and veterans.
"I ask that you consider our veteran population in your work, and the only thing I have to say is that no veteran should go hungry after serving honorably on behalf of this country. No veteran should be left behind and that’s what I ask of you is to make sure that the veteran population is included in this discussion about hunger in America. We're hungry, too."
– Carlos Rivera,Veteran, US Air Force, 1971 to 1975 (El Paso)
People with Disabilities
Disability has been identified as “one of the strongest known factors that affect a household’s food security.”
Thirty-eight percent of all households experiencing hunger include an adult with a disability. Families with children with disabilities are also at increased risk for hunger.
Low employment rates and high health care costs constrain the economic resources of people with disabilities, leading to higher rates of hunger. Despite special SNAP provisions regarding resource limits and medical deductions for adults with disabilities, one-third of chronically ill adults cannot afford both food and medicine. In addition, their health may be more fragile than those who do not have disabilities, making them more vulnerable to the health consequences of hunger. In Washington, DC, we heard from Saleemah Akbar, a 57-year-old sufficiently disabled from arthritis and diabetes to receive Supplemental Security Income and SNAP. She relies on a manual wheelchair to go out, but she is too young to qualify for programs that deliver meals to seniors. She said her SNAP benefits are not sufficient to provide the high-protein diet recommended for her diabetes, and in the previous year, she lost more than 100 pounds from lack of sufficient protein.
American Indians and Alaska Natives experience food insecurity at rates more than twice those of non-Hispanic Whites (23% vs.11%).
The Navajo Nation has the highest reported rate of food insecurity of any subpopulation in the United States, with 76.6% of households on their reservation experiencing food insecurity.* This is more than three times the food insecurity rate of American Indians as a whole.
*Although figures for hunger specifically are not available, the figures for the broader category of food insecurity highlight the disparities in rates between American Indians and other populations.
For many American Indians living in their traditional homelands or reservations, obtaining nutritious, affordable food can mean traveling more than 30 miles. In one study of Navajo members, 51% traveled off reservation to get to a grocery store. Among this sample, the shortest distance traveled off-reservation was 155 miles round-trip. Lack of access to healthy food is a daunting problem for American Indians, who are two to three times more likely than the general population to have diabetes, and are also more likely to be obese.
Those Affected by High Incarceration Rates
Incarceration affects not just those in prison, but also their families and communities.
For a family, one member’s incarceration can mean loss of income and emotional support, disruption of family life, and social stigma. Especially for children, the result can be insufficient food and shelter, emotional trauma, difficulty in school, and increased stress. Several studies have found significant correlations between parental incarceration and food insecurity.
About 650,000 people are released from prison each year; most are poor, unemployed, and homeless or living in marginal housing. Returning to society after serving time, finding a job, getting housing, and reconnecting with family and community is often very difficult. Felons are ineligible to be a principal lease-holder for subsidized housing, and in most states, those convicted of a drug felony (but not other felonies, including violent ones) are prohibited from receiving SNAP. Currently, no nationally representative study assesses the hunger rate of people recently released from prison across the United States, but in a recent study, 90% of individuals released from prison reported household food insecurity, and 37% reported not eating for an entire day because they had no money. All of these difficulties affect not just the released inmate, but also their families.
Meeting with commissioners in Washington DC, two women described their lives as “broken” after leaving prison, until they began job training at DC Central Kitchen. Monitoring hunger and providing assistance to people who have served their time and are re-entering society with a willingness to become productive and responsible members of society will not only help reduce hunger, but may also help to keep people from returning to prison and lessen the impact on their families.
Individuals and families immigrate to the United States for a variety of reasons: economic opportunity, reunification with family, or asylum from ethnic, religious, or political persecution.
Forty-one million immigrants—13.1% of our population—live in the United States. Of those 41 million, about 27% (11.3 million) do not have legal documentation. Documented and undocumented immigrants represent a sizeable portion of our population, and their children account for a significant proportion of our future workforce. Therefore, understanding and monitoring hunger among immigrant families, including undocumented persons, is an important part of preventing longterm negative impacts.
Assessing hunger in documented and undocumented immigrant populations is challenging for a variety of reasons. Immigrant households may include citizen children and non-citizen parents, who may or may not be documented. Extended family members—documented and undocumented—may also live in such households, either temporarily or permanently. In addition, immigrants who are seasonal workers move frequently. Undocumented persons may avoid participating in surveys and the Census out of fear of deportation or incarceration. Therefore, even though they are included in survey results, these factors make it difficult to compare hunger rates between documented and undocumented populations.
Given these complexities, studies among immigrants tend to be small, may include people of many different countries of origin, or be limited to particular geographies or professions, making it hard to compare hunger rates. We do know that children in immigrant households are disproportionately affected by hunger: children in households with immigrant mothers are three times as likely to be hungry as children in households with U.S.-born mothers (documentation status not reported). Children in households headed by a recent immigrant are also more likely to be hungry than children in other households (documentation status not reported). One small study compared documented and undocumented workers in Georgia and found that undocumented workers were about three times as likely to be food insecure as documented workers.
On our trip to El Paso, we visited colonias in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Women and lay community health workers from those communities told us that their communities lack basic infrastructure for safety and security. A survey of women in the colonias found that 78% of households did not have enough food, and 7% had no food at all. Approximately 18% had adults who were unemployed (documentation status not reported).
Documented immigrants are those who are in the United States legally.
Undocumented immigrants are those who are here illegally. These may include asylum seekers (people who have entered illegally seeking refugee status, which if granted, would regularize their presence and make them legal) and those who entered the United States legally on a temporary visa that has since expired, rendering their presence here illegal.
Colonia: an unincorporated settlement of immigrant families, the majority of whom are undocumented.