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Seniors are more likely to receive food assistance after becoming eligible for Medicare

Low-income seniors were seven times more likely to visit a food pantry in the year after becoming eligible for Medicare, leading to better food security, according to a new UT Southwestern study.

The study authors analyzed data from nearly 545 households that visited the Crossroads Community Services food pantry in Dallas, looking at levels of food insecurity and the number of visits for food assistance in the previous two years and two years after a person’s 65th birthday, when most people are eligible for the federal senior health insurance program.

The researchers suspect that achieving Medicare eligibility may improve access to these services for several reasons, including new entry into the health care system. The findings could point community organizers toward additional methods of connecting an often-overlooked age group with resources as food prices continue to rise with record inflation.

“We’ve been working to build this dataset locally on how food assistance is associated with health,” said Sandi Pruitt, study leader and associate professor at the Peter O’Donnell Jr. School of Public Health. “We are now beginning to understand the extent of the problem and what we need to do to improve the health of this truly underserved and vulnerable group.”

In Texas, 9% of seniors were food insecure in 2020 and another 3.5% were very food insecure, according to Feeding America’s latest report on the state of hunger among seniors in America . Food insecurity has been linked to poor health outcomes for older adults, who already experience higher rates of health problems than their younger counterparts.

The transition time period associated with Medicare eligibility can provide a significant opening to make older Texans willing or able to access food services.

For some people, Medicare is the first health insurance they’ve ever had. This is especially true in Texas, which has the highest uninsured rate of any state.

“Having access to health care for the first time can give them the opportunity to interact with people in the health system, such as counselors, social workers, even doctors who are increasingly aware of the issue of food security and they connect people to resources the longest. time,” Pruitt said.

As people age and retire from full-time work, they may have more time to access public services. They may also feel less concerned about the stigma associated with visiting a food pantry.

Visiting food pantries repeatedly can help people break the cycle of food insecurity, but people are often reluctant to visit them too often, said study co-author Tammy Leonard, associate professor and president of economics from the University of Dallas.

“People often don’t ask for help until the situation is desperate because they’re trying so hard to get by without that extra help,” she said. “That it can be noble, but it can also be punishing.”

Increasing touchpoints through other services people already use, such as Medicare or Social Security, could make people more comfortable using a food pantry, said co-author Erline Martinez -Miller, assistant professor of epidemic myology at UT Southwestern.

Crossroads already partners with medical and educational institutions in Dallas County to address a range of social and economic issues affecting food insecurity. The food pantry received nearly 78,000 visits in 2021 and distributed more than 11 million pounds of food.

Food insecurity is a problem that doesn’t have to exist, said Cynthia Thompson, Crossroads vice president of development and communications.

“If we have enough food to be able to get and redistribute, that means there is food available,” he said. “No one should be food insecure, but it happens every day.”

What researchers still don’t understand is why, after peaking the year after an individual turns 65, visits have steadily slowed. According to researchers, people may be less able to access food pantry services because of health problems as they age.

This study is expected to be the start of other projects that will increase the use of resources like Crossroads, Leonard said.

“We’re trying to unearth those mechanisms a little more clearly and then work with people like Crossroads who can put them into action in all kinds of small, immediate ways to really help people,” he said.

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