Too many Hawaiʻi seniors are still going hungry

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Hawai‘i is home to more than 300,000 seniors age 60 and older. These resilient individuals are our parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles—family members who have spent their lives working hard and contributing their knowledge and wisdom to build a better future for the next generation. Our kūpuna deserve dignity and respect in their golden years. However, every day, thousands of Hawai‘i’s kūpuna remain uncertain of where their next meal will come from.

Although Hawaiʻi has made strides to address hunger in recent years, current estimates place the rate of food insecurity among Hawai‘i seniors between 5 percent and nearly 10 percent. Even using the more conservative estimate, this means that more than 16,700 Hawaiʻi seniors are at risk of going hungry.

The issue of senior hunger is complex, and is often a symptom of deeper flaws in the structure of our economy, our society, and of our food systems themselves. To effectively address the problem, policymakers need to place the issue of senior hunger into a more holistic framework—one that understands the interplay between public health, economic justice and social capital.

Fortunately, the means of addressing food insecurity are within our reach. Federal safety net programs can be incredibly powerful tools if we use them effectively. This will require solutions that go beyond expanding access. We must also identify remedies that acknowledge the importance of nutrition and that address the root cause of food insecurity: systemic poverty. These three components: access, nutrition, and community resilience, must all be put in place together to make long lasting, systemic change.

Feeding Our Kūpuna

In a new report titled “Feeding Our Kūpuna,” Hawai‘i Appleseed examines the issue of senior hunger: why it exists, who is at risk, and what policymakers can do about it. The report examines solutions within the three main areas of food security: 1) Access to Resources, 2) Health and Nutrition, and 3) Community Resilience:

  1. Access to Resources: At its most basic, food insecurity is a lack of access to food. Federal anti-hunger programs are critical to ensuring that no one ever goes hungry. Solutions in this area focus on ensuring our safety net programs are accessible and functioning correctly.
  2. Health and Nutrition: People living on lower incomes often have to rely on processed foods not just for affordability, but also for convenience. Any solution to hunger should not focus solely on feeding people while ignoring the health consequences of unhealthy foods. Solutions should harness the power of the healthcare system to make a cultural shift toward “food as medicine.”
  3. Community Resilience: At its root, food insecurity is a symptom of systemic, generational poverty and community disinvestment. The idea behind “community based food systems” is to ensure that capital is generated and circulated in local economies, rather than being extracted by large multinational food conglomerates. Solutions focus on connecting low income consumers with local farmers and food businesses.
Taking Action

Hawai‘i strives to care for its seniors and has made commendable progress toward making their lives comfortable and full through the dedicated services of nonprofit organizations, churches and government offices. However, thousands of Hawai‘i seniors are still at risk of experiencing hunger across the islands.

The recommendations in this report include specific actions for improving access to federal nutrition programs, but also for connecting these programs to our communities in ways that improve cohesion and health and keep economic capital circulating in our local economy. While streamlining access to public benefits is important, we must also prioritize actions that connect food producers to local markets, and connect seniors to their communities. The report includes actions Hawai‘i can take to address senior hunger in all three of these areas.

Service providers and policymakers should work to maximize federal program dollars in the quest to build a food system that connects food producers to consumers, thereby improving the freshness of the ingredients available to low income seniors while keeping capital circulating in Hawai‘i’s agricultural sector.

As a state, we should harness these tools to ensure our kūpuna have opportunities to stay connected with their communities. With better coordination, and through better leveraging of available resources, we can strengthen our hunger safety net and minimize the number of seniors in Hawai‘i that experience food insecurity.