Ohio can lead the fight against senior hunger

Our state needs to improve programs that are not serving elders as well as they should


The saying that “as Ohio goes, so goes the nation” is typically associated with presidential elections. But it also mirrors the relationship of Ohio’s senior citizens to those across the rest of the country — especially those who suffer from hunger.

The number of Ohioans who were 60 years old and older grew by 14.5 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the number of Americans who live beyond age 85 will increase from 5.5 million in 2010 to 19 million by 2050.

With this influx comes both short and long-term needs, particularly for nutritious food. A new study by the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger shows a substantial increase in the number of senior Americans who face the threat of hunger.

In 2011, 8.8 million seniors nationally faced such a threat — an 88 percent increase since 2001 and a 42 percent increase since the start of the Great Recession in 2007. A decade earlier, one in nine seniors faced the threat of hunger; by 2011, nearly one in every six seniors was so affected.

Although Ohio ranks 25th among the states in the percentage of its residents age 60 and older who are hungry, our state has made steady progress. From 2010 to 2011, the share of seniors in Ohio who faced the threat of hunger declined from 15.8 percent to 13.8 percent. This improvement is the result of such initiatives as the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, which benefits both elderly Ohioans and local farmers.

Other efforts focus directly on improving food production in Ohio’s nutrition-short urban areas. Community-based programs such as the City in a Garden project in Toledo and the Rid-All initiative in Cleveland make a huge difference in the well-being of local seniors.

But while our state seems to be on the right track, too many older Ohioans are still threatened by hunger. Much work remains to be done to prevent and end senior hunger, here and across America. We must focus on devising new systems and production techniques close to home, while we work to improve programs that are not serving elders as well as they should.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, is a case in point. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that only 35 percent of eligible seniors participate in SNAP. Lack of awareness, misunderstanding about the nature of the program, and the stigma of “welfare” limit its use by needy seniors who could benefit from it.

One way to encourage seniors to get the help they deserve is to change our rhetoric. We should market SNAP as a positive contributor to healthy lifestyles and improved nutrition. We should expand SNAP redemption opportunities at local farmers’ markets and community production sites.

Other best practices work in our communities, but many of them are never shared. By neglecting to communicate, we risk failing to learn how we can improve our efforts. This leaves our senior citizens even more at risk and vulnerable. We have a moral obligation to do better.

News media and politicians refer to Ohio as a “battleground state.” That’s a perfect rallying cry to adopt for a worthy cause. We can and must begin fighting to end senior hunger, here and now.

Ohio should not settle for the 25th spot on the senior hunger list. Instead, we should work toward a day when there will be no list at all. It’s time to work together to build models that can be reproduced and will serve our seniors, today and in the future.

Let’s get the right people together, start the dialogue, and find sustainable solutions so the rest of the nation will do as it has always done: follow Ohio’s lead.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) represents Ohio’s 9th Congressional District. Enid Borden is president and chief executive officer of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.