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Loneliness and Health: Food Insecurity Can Hit Hard for Adults Living Alone

close of an older hands, clasped together, representing the health struggles that can arise from lonliness.

A solitary lifestyle may suit some people, but many people living by themselves suffer from loneliness, health problems, and issues with obtaining enough food.

In those circumstances, services provided by Food Bank of the Rockies, such as Mobile Pantries and EverGreen Boxes™ for older adults, a program of Everyday Eats, can be critical in maintaining adequate nutrition and making the best use of limited resources.

“It saves me at least $80 a month,” said Alpha, a centenarian who lives by herself and makes use of the EverGreen Box™ program. “I basically don’t have to buy any food.”

An estimated 13.2% of women living alone and 12.3% of men living alone experienced food insecurity in 2021, according to “Household Food Security in the United States in 2021,” a research publication of the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Households are classified as food insecure if they report three or more food-insecure conditions during the year, based on a series of 18 questions asked by the researchers.

Moreover, many of those people living alone experienced very low food security in 2021, defined as such: “At times during the year, the food intake of household members was reduced and their normal eating patterns were disrupted because the household lacked money and other resources for food,” according to the publication. Six percent of women living alone and 5.9% of men living alone experienced very low food security in 2021. It’s clear that, in many circumstances, loneliness and health issues related to food insecurity go hand-in-hand.

Adults living alone were among the few demographic categories to experience worsening food insecurity in 2021 compared to 2020. Older adults living alone — identified as people age 65 and older — also experienced statistically significant increases in food insecurity in 2021 compared to 2020, from 8.3% to 9.5%.

Overall, according to the study, food insecurity did not increase significantly from 2020 to 2021. However, a substantial slice of the United States population — 10.2%, or 13.5 million households — experienced food insecurity in 2021. And 3.8%, or 5.1 million households, had very low food security during the year.

Colorado tracked the national trend closely, with 10.5% of its households experiencing food insecurity during the past three years (2019-2021) and 3.8% experiencing very low food security.

The prevalence of food insecurity in Colorado and nationwide is considerably lower than during the economic recession of 2009-2011, when some states saw nearly 20% of households experience food insecurity. Colorado’s rate during those years was 13.4%.

But the numbers from 2021, when compared to 2020, do indicate that the combination of inflation and fewer social activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated food insecurity among certain demographic groups, such as adults living alone.

One bit of welcome news from the 2021 report was that the percent of children in the United States who experienced food insecurity fell from 7.6% in 2020 to 6.2% in 2021. But that still meant children in 2.3 million households were unable to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children at some time during 2021.

Additionally, 274,000 households experienced very low food security, meaning that children in those families went hungry, skipped a meal, or were unable to eat for an entire day because there wasn’t enough money for food.

Meanwhile, sociologists and health-care experts are struggling to understand the growing numbers of adults living alone, and what that means for public health issues such as food insecurity.

Until the middle of the 20th century, few humans worldwide lived alone for any extended period of time. But that began to change during the last decades of the century and into the 21st century. Now, a quarter of all households in the United States are one-person households.

“There’s good reason to believe that this spike in living alone, and particularly aging alone, but we don’t yet have enough research to understand exactly how,” wrote researcher Eric Klinenberg in a 2016 study.

According to more recent information from a group called The Campaign to End Loneliness, health issues like an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and dementia can all be attributed to living alone and the social isolation it can cause.

For people like Alpha, who lost her adult children to COVID-19, relying on a network of friends to assist her in picking up her EverGreen Box™ and in making other social connections is critical.

“I’ve got a number of people who come and help me out if I need it,” she said. “The Lord’s been good to me.”

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