Before the COVID crisis, 1 in 7 adults ages 50 to 80 had difficulty getting enough food because of high costs or other factors, according to the National Poll on Healthy Aging conducted by the University of Michigan.
The number unable to obtain needed food in the past year was even higher among blacks, Hispanics and those not yet getting Medicare, researchers said.
"Access to nutritious food and health status are closely linked, yet this poll reveals major disparities in that access," said poll director Dr. Preeti Malani, a professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine.
"Even as we focus on preventing the spread of coronavirus, we must also ensure that older adults can get food that aligns with any health conditions they have, so we don't exacerbate diabetes, hypertension, digestive disorders and other conditions further," she said in a university news release.
The poll involved 2,000 adults, aged 50 to 80, who answered questions about their so-called food security in December 2019.
Older poor people and those with lower levels of education were more likely than others to have trouble getting food, the poll found.
Despite the extent of the problem, only a third of these Americans were receiving government food aid through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps).
Also, less than 2% of those over 60 received free meals at senior centers or from Meals on Wheels.
Disruptions to food supply chains, employment and social services from COVID-19 may have worsened disparities, said the experts who designed the poll for the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.
"These data suggest an important opportunity, which is likely even more urgent now, to connect older adults with resources they may not know about, and to explore public policies that could improve access," said researcher Cindy Leung, an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the U-M School of Public Health.
Older adults who had trouble getting food were three times more likely to say their health was poor. They were also nearly five times as likely to report having fair or poor mental health, the researchers found.