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By Caroline Eggers | Bowling Green Daily News

Kentucky has the nation’s highest rate of food insecurity among residents 50 to 59 years old, according to Feeding America’s first-time effort to document hunger in older adults.

Nearly 19% of the state’s older adults are food insecure, and another 9% are “very low food secure.” The national rates were 11% and 5%, respectively.

Tamara Sandberg

“It’s alarming. Unlike in the rest of the country, where it’s been getting better with people ages 50 to 59, we’ve been getting worse,” said Tamara Sandberg, Feeding Kentucky executive director.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as diets with “reduced quality, variety or desirability” but limited evidence of reduced food intake. Very low food security indicates disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

Though people picturing hunger might imagine kids with visible ribs, the image of hunger in the U.S. is diverse – but more often it’s someone overweight or obese, as food insecurity represents a lack of nutrients, not calories. It’s called the hunger-obesity paradox.

“If you’re trying to stretch your family’s budget and get them fed, you’re going to do what you need to do, oftentimes with inexpensive food that is purely carbohydrates,” said Martin Stone, a professor of horticulture at Western Kentucky University and co-founder of the Community Farmers Market in Bowling Green.

This is evident in food bank-utilizing households, who report buying inexpensive, unhealthy food as a coping mechanism, according to Sandberg.

Other factors might include social stress, metabolic factors – research suggests animals with threatened food supplies store more fat – and food deserts or food swamps, which are areas flooded with stores selling unhealthy food.

Fresh vegetables retain the most nutrition. But for people picking out food at an area food pantry, that can be a challenge. If produce is offered, it’s often the produce that wouldn’t be able to be sold at markets because of over-ripeness.

When people don’t eat enough fruits or vegetables, this can lead to significant health consequences.

Nutritional deficiencies contribute to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, depression, and certain cancers – and, eventually, higher health care costs.

“There is a strong relationship between hunger and health,” Sandberg said.

‘State of Senior Hunger’

Feeding America’s annual “State of Senior Hunger” report said nearly 8% of older Americans across the nation are food insecure and 3% are very low food secure. For food insecurity, rates ranged from about 12% in Louisiana to less than 3% in Minnesota. For very low food secure seniors, rates ranged from 0.7% in Colorado to 5.4% in Rhode Island.

In Kentucky, 8.4% of older residents were food insecure and 2.6% were very low food secure in 2017, the report said.

“Our rate of food insecurity in seniors is better than last year. We’re no longer in the top 10,” Sandberg said.

In the report, food insecurity was highest among racial or ethnic minorities, people with lower incomes and people who rent homes.

It’s unclear why Kentucky’s older residents ranked close to the national average for food insecurity, while adults in their 50s had the highest rates.

“We know that we just need more research,” Sandberg said.

Since people in their 50s face some of the highest rates of food insecurity among any adult populations, this research could prove important for future generations.

The imaginary line between people in their 50s and the 60-plus is clear when it comes to accessing services – which many seniors are not. For example, a third of Kentucky’s older citizens eligible for the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP, are accessing benefits, lower than the national average of 42%, according to a National Council on Aging study.

But the older adult population is often left out of social services due to age cutoffs. That’s a benefit of food pantries, which only require proof of residence, according to Monica Ruehling, the marketing and communication coordinator for the Elizabethtown-based regional food bank, Feeding America, Kentucky’s Heartland.

“People think they’re out there by themselves, and they’re not,” Ruehling said.

Here is more from Feeding America: