New study reveals paths to improved food security and health for rural older adults

BLOOMINGTON – Support networks for rural older adults, such as group hot lunch programs, inter-generational relationships, and public or private transportation services play an integral role in seniors’ food security and quality of life. Efforts to build these resources for rural communities can directly support the nutrition security of lower-income older adults who are at the highest risk for food insecurity and its effects on health outcomes and medical costs. 

While most studies on food insecurity focus primarily on the availability of food items in an area, few explore the more nuanced questions of how people access that food, or what they do once they have it. A new report, “Navigating food insecurity as a rural older adult: The importance of congregate meal sites, social networks and transportation services,” which was published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, examines the findings of 10 focus group discussion meetings held in the Indiana Uplands region that gathered qualitative data from both older adults and service providers to help shed light on the issues at hand. 

Dr. Julia Valliant

Co-authored by several members of Indiana University’s Sustainable Food Systems Science group and their colleagues, lead author Dr. Julia Valliant notes that the research study “identified keys to the food security and nutrition of rural older adults, including programs and policies that aim to help elders to eat with others and have dependable transportation.”

Valliant also noted that “these programs bring more joy to older adults, which supports their overall health.” Specifically, the researchers found that eating meals with others was very valuable to the nutrition security, and wellness of older adults.

Focus group participants especially appreciated a public, daily hot lunch program, the Congregate Meal Program of the Older Americans Act. Investment in the Congregate Meal Program by state and federal governments is eroding, despite its positive health effects.

The paper recounts how, in 2019 alone, before the Covid-19 pandemic, one-third of the meal sites in the Indiana focus group counties were shuttered. Nationally, the Congregate Meal Program served 44% fewer meals in 2016 than it did in 1990, even as the older population has grown. As a result, 89% of rural, low-income older adults lack access to these meals, according to a Government Accountability Office study in 2015. The IU research details opportunities to strengthen Congregate Meals locally. 

The research also found an increasing need for rural transportation services as many older adults have stopped driving by age 70 and as the rural population continues to age. While the focus groups revealed personal networks to be a tremendous asset, they also revealed the fluctuating nature of these relationships, reinforcing the need for formal transportation services in rural communities.

The paper details how, in addition to the need for transportation services, programmatic mechanisms that strengthen, build upon, and foster older adults’ existing informal relationships and services could be of great value. Lastly, service providers and older adults in the focus groups shared different perspectives on the tradeoffs of older adults residing with their descendants in multi-generational homes. While many service providers saw these scenarios as potentially predatory on the part of the younger generations, the older adults often expressed deep appreciation for the company and division of labor children, grandchildren, and in-laws can provide when they become housemates. The older adults’ views emphasized the role that feelings of connection can play in one’s sense of well-being, and even in one’s ability to adequately care for oneself. 

About IU Sustainable Food Systems Science 

Sustainable Food Systems Science at Indiana University studies the social dimensions of food sustainability including culture, equity, and justice in food provisioning from local to global. In Indiana, and in research sites around the world, we examine the production, coordination, and consumption of food value chains and the supporting networks and decision-making from individual to organizational levels. Our engaged research and advocacy for innovative solutions center on the promotion of human thriving. 

Corresponding author: Dr. Julia Valliant: 

About IU Center for Rural Engagement

The IU Center for Rural Engagement improves the lives of Hoosiers through collaborative initiatives that discover and deploy scalable and flexible solutions to common challenges facing rural communities. Working in full-spectrum community innovation through research, community-engaged teaching and student service, the center builds vision, harnesses assets, and cultivates sustainable leadership structures within the communities with which it engages to ensure long-term success.