Seniors underreport struggles with food


To understand senior hunger in Minnesota, it helps to meet 94-year-old Earl Komis.

Komis is part of a generation that knows hunger. He lived on a farm in western Minnesota during the Great Depression. When drought struck, he and his family didn’t have enough food.

“There was nothing to eat, nowhere,” recalled Komis. “There was no money coming in. For six years, we didn’t have any crops. We didn’t have rain.”

When his parents couldn’t afford to feed everyone, then 15-year-old Komis left home and walked to a nearby city, where he hoped to find work. He spent a day and a half without food.

“It felt like your stomach was growed to your backbone,” he said. “You didn’t have any pain or anything, you just got weak. If I would have kept on going, why I’d have just faded away.”

Today, Komis lives in Ortonville, a small town in Big Stone County, on Minnesota’s western border. He gets by on a small Social Security check and receives a monthly box of commodity food from the federal Nutrition Assistance Program for Seniors. But he has enough food. And he said nothing compares to the hardship of the Great Depression.

Nationwide, 7.5 percent of households with seniors report that they struggle to consistently obtain enough nutritious food. But researchers suspect the number is higher.

“They experienced real hardship earlier in their life, so when they’re responding to questions about how it is for them now, they’re answering in a sense relative to the worst that they’ve experienced in the past,” said Edward Frongillo, Professor at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina.

Still, it’s important to pay attention to senior hunger, Frongillo said, in part because seniors who have trouble getting enough nutritious food are significantly more likely to be in poor health. They’re also more vulnerable to the effects of hunger, because many are already dealing with health concerns.

“We know that in general as people age they’re a little bit less able to deal with crisis as they come along, both socially and biologically,” Frongillo said. “Nutrition is important in helping to maintain their resilience to things that might come to them.”

Today on All Things Considered, we’ll feature a story about seniors in Big Stone County, one of the counties in Minnesota with the highest percentage of people over the age of 65.

For more hunger coverage, visit our Ground Level blog.

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