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The Impact of Hunger on the City's Senior Population

Áine Duggan and Ashley Baughman
for the
New York City Council Oversight Hearing
"Addressing the Impact of Hunger on the City's Senior Population"
December 13th, 2007

on behalf of
Food Bank For New York City/FoodChange


Good afternoon. I am Áine Duggan, Vice President for Government Relations, Policy & Research [now Research, Policy & Education] with the Food Bank For New York City and FoodChange. The Food Bank appreciates the opportunity to present testimony this morning to the City Council regarding the impact of hunger on New York City's senior population.

First, I would like to thank the City Council and the Committee on Aging for taking this time to highlight the particular issue of elderly hunger.

Food Bank For New York City, in conjunction with its subsidiary organization, FoodChange, works to end hunger through a range of programs and services that increase access to nutrition, education and financial empowerment. The organization warehouses and distributes food to approximately 1,000 emergency and community food programs citywide (including approximately 100 senior centers); provides food safety, networking and capacity-building workshops; manages nutrition-education programs for schools and emergency food programs; operates food stamp outreach and education programs; coordinates the largest Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program in the country; and conducts research and develops policy to inform community and government efforts to end hunger throughout the five boroughs.

In my testimony today, I wish to provide a brief overview of recent research findings demonstrating the extent of hunger among New York City's senior population and the challenges faced by this vulnerable population.


Census data demonstrates that almost one-fifth (19 percent) of the city's elderly population ages 65 and above live below the federal poverty level (approximately $20,000 for a family of three), up from 18 percent in 2004.[1] Borough figures reveal that almost one-quarter (24 percent) of the elderly population in Brooklyn live in poverty, followed by 23 percent in the Bronx, 20 percent in Manhattan, 13 percent in Queens and 11 percent in Staten Island.

Census data also shows disproportionately large increases in the number of elderly in NYC in the past few years. While the total NYC population has increased 4 percent from 2004 (7.9 million) to 2006 (8.2 million), the number of residents ages 65 and above has risen 7 percent from 926,000 in 2004 to 994,000 in 2006, an increase of more than 67,000 people. Borough analysis demonstrates that the 12 percent increases in elderly residents in the Bronx and Staten Island between 2004 and 2006 are the highest among all boroughs (the number of elderly residents in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens increased by 9 percent, 6 percent and 5 percent, respectively). In addition, census data shows that some boroughs have experienced a spike in their "older elderly" population: the number of elderly ages 80 and above increased by 35 percent in the Bronx, 13 percent in Manhattan, 10 percent in Queens and 6 percent in Brooklyn, in contrast to a decrease of -8 percent in Staten Island (the latter contributes to an overall city increase of 4 percent). As the baby boom generation ages, the number of elderly New Yorkers is expected to rise dramatically.

As the population of NYC residents ages 65 and older rises, it becomes increasingly more urgent to address the challenges and hardships experienced by low-income elderly New Yorkers. The Hunger Safety Net initiative, ongoing research conducted by the Food Bank, in collaboration with academic partners, reveals that many elderly city residents are forced to make ends meet on low incomes and benefit amounts, as the costs of basic necessities rise, by turning to emergency food.

NYC Hunger Safety Net 2007: A Food Poverty Focus is the second report in the Hunger Safety Net series, which is designed to track trends in hunger and inform research-based solutions to hunger and poverty throughout the five boroughs of New York City. The report includes findings on New York City residents who rely on emergency food programs (EFPs), including soup kitchens and food pantries; the operations, resources and services of EFPs; and an analysis of New York City residents' access to private and government food assistance at varying poverty levels, including a spatial analysis of need and services. This research updates and expands upon results from Hunger Safety Net 2004: Measuring Gaps in Food Assistance in New York City.

Findings within Hunger Safety Net 2007 show that throughout New York City, 1.3 million residents, including 154,000 residents ages 65 and above, are served by emergency food programs (EFPs). This figure represents more than 427,000 EFP households. Among the NYC households accessing EFPs, approximately 124,000 (29 percent) have at least one elderly member age 65 or above, an increase of 11 percent since 2004.

Elderly New Yorkers in the Emergency Food System

Approximately three-quarters of EFP households with elderly members (approximately 93,700) rely on Social Security benefits averaging $10,824 per year, considerably lower than the average annual benefit of $13,951 among NYC households receiving Social Security.[2] Even factoring in extra household income, EFP households with elderly members survive on a total average annual income of $12,300.

Housing expenses are among the basic living costs making it difficult for low-income elderly New Yorkers to afford food on such low incomes. Among EFP participants 65 and above, 81 percent rent their homes (79 percent among the total EFP population), 16 percent own (7 percent among the total EFP population), 3 percent are homeless (11 percent among the total EFP population) and 0.5 percent live in other accommodation (1 percent among the total EFP population). Among elderly EFP participants who rent and own, average mortgage and rental costs comprise 55 percent of their average household income.

The elderly EFP population also has health related challenges and expenses to cope with as they have considerably higher diagnosis rates for conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer than the total EFP population. Among participants and household members ages 65 and older, more than one-third (34 percent) have been diagnosed with diabetes, more than three times the rate for the total EFP population (11 percent). Similarly, 13 percent of the elderly EFP population have been diagnosed with heart disease, more than double the rate for the total EFP population (5 percent), and 9 percent have been diagnosed with cancer, three times the rate for the total EFP population (3 percent). In addition, 10 percent of the elderly EFP population have been diagnosed with asthma (17 percent among the total EFP population), 3 percent have been diagnosed with obesity (3 percent among the total EFP population) and 2 percent have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS (2 percent among the total EFP population).

Struggling with hardships such as low fixed incomes, high housing costs and higher rates of serious health conditions, as described above, contribute to elderly New Yorkers' long-term reliance on emergency food, and findings demonstrate that this trend is getting worse. Approximately one-third (34 percent)08 of EFP participants ages 65 and older have been visiting soup kitchens and food pantries for less than one year, a 26 percent decrease from 46 percent in 2004, while more than two-thirds (67 percent) have been visiting for more than one year, a 22 percent increase from 55 percent in 2004. Further, many elderly participants visiting programs for longer than one year have been accessing programs for as many as ten years or longer. Among elderly participants, 27 percent have been visiting EFPs for one to two years, 25 percent for two to five years, 11 percent for five to ten years and 4 percent have been visiting for more than ten years. Longer reliance on emergency food may also be a factor driving the increase in the number of elderly households accessing EFPs.

Low participation rates in the Food Stamp Program (FSP) and low FSP benefits are also a likely causal factor in the increased number of EFP households with elderly members. Among EFP households with elderly adults, only 19 percent are enrolled in FSP, considerably lower than the participation rate among all EFP households (46 percent), EFP households with children (46 percent) and EFP households with employed members (31 percent). Further, despite a general trend of increasing FSP participation among other EFP populations (the FSP participation rate among all EFP households increased from 31 percent in 2004 to 46 percent in 2007), increased participation of households with elderly members was almost negligible (from 17 percent in 2004 to 19 percent in 2007). These findings demonstrate that additional outreach is needed to increase the number of eligible elderly residents enrolled in FSP.

In addition, findings show that inadequate FSP benefits are forcing elderly New Yorkers to rely on emergency food. The average monthly food stamp benefit amount for EFP households with elderly adults is only $119 per month (approximately $30 per week), even lower than the average benefit of $147 per month among all enrolled EFP households. Given such low benefit amounts, it is not surprising that almost one-quarter (23 percent) of EFP households with elderly members receiving food stamps run out within one week and more than three-quarters (77 percent) run out before the end of the month. The minimum monthly food stamp benefit (which largely impacts the elderly) has been stuck at $10 for the last 30 years (it has not been increased since 1977).

Analysis of Access to Food Assistance

Trend analysis on access to food assistance in Hunger Safety Net 2007, which is conducted at 125 percent of poverty for comparison purposes with the 2004 study, uncovered a potentially new dimension to the hunger issue in Manhattan. Overall NYC trends show a substantial decrease in the percentage of New York City residents living below 125 percent of poverty and not accessing EFPs, FSP or WIC, from 28 percent in 2004 to 1 percent in 2007. Factoring into this change was a 39 percent increase in the population accessing only FSP and/or WIC and also a rise in the population accessing EFPs and FSP and/or WIC, which has more than doubled from 12 percent in 2004 to 31 percent in 2007, demonstrating that outreach efforts since the last report have been effective throughout the city.

However, borough-level analysis revealed that Manhattan was the only area in which the population below 125 percent of poverty not accessing EFPs, FSP or WIC increased (from -9 percent in 2004 to 25 percent in 2007). The increase was primarily caused by a 25 percent decrease in the population receiving FSP and/or WIC (whereas access to EFPs in Manhattan was comparable in both years: 52 percent in 2004 and 49 percent in 2007). A notable increase in the number of aging elderly Manhattan residents who may be more likely to be housebound and therefore not accessing services is a likely causal factor. Census reports tracking population trends in Manhattan show that the population over the age of 75 increased 9 percent and the population aged 80 and older jumped 18 percent between 2003 and 2005. The phenomenon requires deeper analysis to determine if access to food assistance is an issue for Manhattan's aging elderly population, and if an investment in homebound food assistance services and considerations for food stamps are required to meet the needs of this aging elderly population or if the needs of this population may already be met through the provision of other services.

An analysis of rental costs among EFP participants further indicates that an increase in the population of Manhattan residents below 125 percent not accessing FSP and/or WIC is likely due to increased numbers of elderly residents not enrolled in FSP. While it is generally accepted that Manhattan rents are typically higher than rents in other boroughs, 2007 EFP participant findings demonstrate that low-income EFP households in Manhattan typically pay less rent than EFP participants in Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. For example, the average monthly Manhattan rent for EFP participants is $485, 35 percent less than average monthly rent for EFP participants in Queens. This is likely due to EFP participants having a longer tenure in rent-stabilized or -controlled apartments in Manhattan, indicating that this population is comprised of older individuals. Further analysis is required to determine if elderly or other Manhattan residents living below 125 percent of the federal poverty level are living in rent-stabilized or -controlled buildings and paying less rent than their counterparts in other boroughs.

These findings suggest that delivery of food and meals to homebound elderly adults may be required to meet the needs of NYC's increasing elderly population. Providing support and funding for EFPs to carryout homebound delivery would be an effective method for achieving this goal as soup kitchens and food pantries are already well connected with the populations in need in their communities. In addition, as many EFPs are already independently providing homebound deliveries, there is an opportunity to expand and strengthen these services. More than one-fifth (22 percent) of EFPs currently provide home-delivered packaged food, 7 percent offer home-delivered prepared food and an additional 3 percent provide home-delivered prepared food from City Meals on Wheels.

Decreased Resources at EFPs

Contributing to an already worsening situation, there is an insufficient supply of food and resources at the EFPs providing needed assistance to NYC elderly residents. Loss of support from government-funded emergency food programs is an underlying cause of this hardship. The government sources of emergency food for soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City include The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA); the Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP), administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP), administered by the New York State Department of Health; and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP), administered by the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA).

Most worrisome is the dramatic decrease in the supply of emergency food through TEFAP due to severe cuts to the bonus commodity component and flat-funding of the entitlement component of the program. Consequently, there is a national shortage of TEFAP food in soup kitchens and food pantries around the country, including a loss of approximately 12 million pounds of TEFAP food to New York City EFPs over the past few years, from approximately 29 million pounds to approximately 17 million pounds. As a result of these cuts, the city's emergency food network is currently experiencing the most severe food shortage the Food Bank has ever seen. In response to this crisis, the City announced a one-time infusion of $1 million for EFAP and New York State announced a one-time infusion of $5 million for HPNAP to bolster food supplies as work continues to secure passage of the 2007 Farm Bill with a strong nutrition title that would increase funding for TEFAP, FSP and other vital nutrition programs.

In addition, the vital resource of volunteers, upon which almost all NYC EFPs (93 percent) rely (more than one-half of soup kitchens and food pantries have no paid staff and rely entirely on volunteers), has become less dependable during the past three years. The average number of volunteers at EFPs dropped from 16 to 12 (largely driven by a sharp decrease in the number of volunteers at soup kitchens, from 29 to 16), and the average number of hours worked per week by volunteers has decreased from 15 to seven. Not surprisingly, there has been an increase in the average number of hours worked per week by paid staff in the same time period (from 12 to 17), which is an extra strain on EFPs considering that the average number of paid staff positions has decreased from three to two from 2004 to 2007. Anecdotal evidence demonstrates that most EFP volunteers are elderly, hence it is likely that the decreased number of volunteers is due to an aging elderly population, as mentioned earlier.


Research illustrates the necessity for a combination of policy and programmatic approaches to guarantee that all elderly New Yorkers have permanent access to affordable, nutritious food.

Strategies to ensure elderly residents in need receive near-term assistance include increasing food supplies and/or administrative funding for the city's EFPs and senior centers, increasing enrollment of elderly New Yorkers in FSP and increasing the FSP benefit amounts to reflect the true cost of food.

The broader goal should be to recognize the vital connector role that EFPs play in communities throughout the city and developing and expanding initiatives that link EFP participants to government and community programs for which they are eligible. For example:

  • Supporting EFPs in their efforts to connect elderly participants to relevant benefits, health services and financial empowerment, such as food stamps;
  • Developing initiatives to help EFPs connect elderly participants to neighborhood senior centers and other community services; and
  • Making funds available to support increased capacity of homebound delivery services, including the homebound delivery services provided by EFPs.

In the long term, solving elderly hunger requires expanding the discussion and addressing the myriad of hardships faced by low-income New Yorkers. Viewing hunger in this way allows for a broader coalition of stakeholders from sectors including food and nutrition, health, education, childcare, housing, government agencies and academic institutions to join the anti-hunger community in developing comprehensive solutions. Bringing more voices to the table refocuses the problem of hunger to address the broader problem of food poverty.


[1] American Community Survey. (2004, 2006) United States Census Bureau. Changes in census methodology in 2006 allowed for a larger population of people in NYC (and throughout the US) to be included within the census counts than in previous years. Residents living in "group quarters" — including assisted living facilities, retirement homes, rehabilitation centers and shelters — who are more likely to have low incomes and live below the poverty level and in many cases are more likely to be elderly, are counted within the 2006 poverty figures which, as a result, more accurately reflect the magnitude of poverty throughout the city.

[2] American Community Survey. (2006) United States Census Bureau.

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