May is Older Americans Month, which presents an opportunity to revisit our work with older adults and rededicate our advocacy efforts, especially for LGBTQ older adults. Recognizing both the vulnerability and resilience among these populations, it is our duty to fight for justice, equality, and food security.
As of 2018, 10% of Americans over the age of 60 – 7.3 million people – faced hunger in the United States. Among LGBTQ older adults, that number is closer to 60%. Yet, only 48% of eligible adults are enrolled in SNAP. The first step to addressing the systemic failures in our nutrition programs is to understand the issues and develop solutions.
Widespread Hunger and Persistent Challenges
MAZON first became deeply engaged in this issue in the wake of the Great Recession, when older adults had the lowest rates of participation in SNAP compared with any other group. We partnered with the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies (formerly the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies) to launch a national initiative, Solutions to Senior Hunger, which sought to understand and address the barriers, challenges, and needs facing food-insecure older adults to access SNAP. In addition to providing SNAP education and enrollment assistance to thousands of seniors across the country, the initiative revealed several systemic issues: deep-seated stigma associated with receiving public benefits, insufficient SNAP benefit levels, a cumbersome application process, and misperceptions about eligibility for benefits.
With this new knowledge, MAZON recommitted to our policy efforts at the federal and state levels. Along with partners from the anti-hunger field, we advocated on Capitol Hill to strengthen federal nutrition programs that serve seniors including SNAP, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, Senior Farmers Market, and Meals on Wheels. At the same time, we worked with our Jewish Family Service partners in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to streamline access to SNAP for seniors through the SNAP Elderly Simplified Application Project (ESAP).
Acute Concern for LGBTQ Older Adults
In addition to realizing the scope of work needed to address hunger among older adults, MAZON learned that a subpopulation – LGBTQ older adults – was even more vulnerable to food insecurity. LGBTQ older adults who live in poverty represent an extremely vulnerable, but often ignored group. When we began our work in this area, little was known about their food security status. We quickly recognized that while advocates were ardently fighting for LGBTQ rights in housing and healthcare policy, hunger often went unaddressed.
To fill this gap, MAZON partnered with SAGE, the nation’s oldest LGBTQ aging advocacy organization. We sought to learn more about the complexities and barriers facing LGBTQ older adults – the challenges unique to them, which often persist from a lifetime of discrimination and stigmatization based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
When research revealed that LGBTQ seniors are 60% more likely to experience food insecurity than their non-LGBTQ peers, MAZON prioritized addressing the unique challenges facing LGBTQ older adults. We learned that 27% of all LGBTQ adults experienced food insecurity and relied on support from SNAP in 2016. But, we knew there was an even greater need among those who did not seek help; LGBTQ elders are less likely to seek out meal programs or charitable food programs due to fear of discrimination or harassment.
In 2018, as ally organizations in partnership with those in the LGBTQ community, MAZON and SAGE convened a national summit in Washington, DC made up of leaders from anti-hunger, LGBTQ, aging, and economic justice organizations as well as government officials. This first-of-its kind summit elevated discussions about the often overlooked challenge of hunger facing LGBTQ older adults and opportunities to collaborate on how best to advocate for this vulnerable population.
Following this, MAZON identified the Williams Institute at the UCLA Law School, a premier LGBTQ think tank, and initiated a request for research into food insecurity among the LGBTQ older adult population age 50+ as part of a larger qualitative research project underway, Pathways to Justice, a study of LGBTQ poverty in the U.S. and California. In June 2020, the Williams Institute released We’re Still Hungry: Lived Experiences with Food Insecurity and Food Programs Among LGBTQ People, which examines the actual lived experiences of food-insecure LGBTQ adults with charitable food and federal nutrition programs. Around the same time, MAZON joined the nascent National LGBTQ Anti-Poverty Action Network, a member-based coalition of over 100 national, state, and local LGBTQ advocacy organizations. Today, the network has grown into a nationally recognized voice on LGBTQ poverty issues, including hunger.
When the pandemic began in early 2020, long lines at food pantries and distribution sites put hunger on the front pages. While the hunger crisis has garnered national attention, we still must remember the often overlooked populations who are uniquely impacted. LGBTQ older adults, especially those of color, are at heightened risk for complications or death from COVID-19 and have faced disparate impacts throughout the pandemic. In addition, because of their increased risk, older adults especially have been unable to leave their homes, creating greater risk of insufficient access to food.
At MAZON, we are heartened by the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to strengthen the federal nutrition safety net, and we are hopeful that these much needed supports are made permanent, especially for the LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ older adults who are in dire need. We continue to urge Congress to enact long-term solutions that address food insecurity among older adults and ensure that all of those in need can access federal nutrition assistance. One of the most meaningful ways to help this population is for policymakers to add “sexual orientation and gender identity” as a “greatest social need” category alongside race for federal programs geared toward older adults. Expanding and adding this category will ensure that services that many LGBTQ seniors depend on are responsive to the unique needs of their community.
The best way to honor Older Americans this month — and every month — is to ensure they do not face the pain and indignity of hunger. Please join MAZON as we work towards this goal by supporting our fight to end hunger and taking action today.