With around 622,360 people in Kentucky labeled as food insecure -- lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food -- 18.6% of those are ages 50 to 59, making the commonwealth the highest ranked for food insecurity in this age range in the nation, according to a Feeding America Report.

According to Tamara Sandberg, the executive director of Feeding Kentucky, the increase in food instability among the older generation is affected by many different scenarios or lifestyle changes.

"At food banks and food pantries across Kentucky, we see people in this age range who are disabled but not yet receiving disability benefits," she listed. "We see grandparents raising grandchildren and struggling to keep enough healthy food on the table. We also know there has been an increase in the percent of Kentuckians in that age range who are divorced or separated, which puts one at higher risk of food insecurity; people who are married are less likely to be struggling with hunger."

Kentucky is nearly 7% higher than the national average of 11.3% for this same age range.

She said the high rate of food insecurity in this age group is concerning due to the relationship between both food insecurities and negative health outcomes like heart disease, diabetes and depression.

The same report, the 2019 Map the Meal Gap Executive Summary, shows that while the economy continues to improve, people are continuing to struggle with food insecurity, affecting more than 40 million people and 12 million children nationwide as of 2017.

Locally in Madison County, there are 13,400 people, or 15.2% of residents, who do not have adequate access or affordability to nutritional food. Of them, 3,160 are children, the report states.

In the same report, Kentucky faces another low rank, as the state is listed at 20th in the nation for child food insecurity rates, falling at 18.4%.

"Hunger is a symptom of poverty," Sandberg said. "Almost one-fourth (23%) of Kentucky children lived in poverty in 2018. Only six states have higher child poverty rates than Kentucky."

However, the report notes that households aren't necessarily food insecure all the time, and for people that are, it may reflect the need to make choices between things such as housing and medical requirements.

But with programs like SNAP (food stamps), food charities and churches, people are able to receive some assistance to feed themselves and their families. But according to Sandberg, only about one-third of people eligible to apply to receive food stamps don't, a lot of times because of the stigma or shame associated with accepting SNAP benefits.

"Unfortunately too many Kentuckians feel the weight of stigma or shame related to accepting SNAP benefits -- even though SNAP is a benefit that, if used to its full potential, could actually decrease spending in other areas, such as health care," she said. "There is also the misperception, particularly among some older adults, that if they receive SNAP benefits, they may be taking from someone else who has a greater need."

In Madison County, it is estimated that 55% of people are eligible to receive SNAP benefits, which falls at or below the federal poverty line threshold of 130%.

Another common misconception, is that a lot of SNAP participants sell or trade their benefits. However, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's website, the USDA has reduced the prevalence of trafficking from 4% to 1% over the past 15 years.

"The vast majority of people who qualify for SNAP benefits are using those benefits exactly as intended: a temporary lifeline to help keep food on the table during an illness or after a job loss," she said.

Food banks and food pantries are also an option, she said, and persons interested can find a food pantry near them by visiting FeedingKY.org. She added that many Kentucky schools distribute backpacks of food for children to take home over the weekend.

Contact your child's Family Resource and Youth Services Center for information. For older adults, the Nutrition Program for the Elderly operated by Area Agencies on Aging and Independent Living is another great option. Call (502) 564-6930, ext. 3495 to learn more.

"Hunger can affect people from all walks of life," she said. "Many Kentuckians are one job loss or medical crisis away from food insecurity. The problem is not a lack of food; the problem is connecting available food resources with the people who need it. Kentucky is leading the way in making these connections through programs such as the Farms to Food Banks program, which helps get unmarketable fresh produce from a field to a food bank instead of having it go to waste."

Reach Taylor Six at 624-6623 or follow her on Twitter @TaylorSixRR.

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