Imagine an America where the combined populations of Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Jose and Jacksonville are unable to access the nutritious food they need to live a healthy life. An America where these 10 million people have an elevated risk of diabetes, heart disease, poor mental health, increased healthcare costs with worse outcomes and premature death. An America where citizens are forced to choose between medication or food, rent or meals, electricity, or groceries. Unfortunately, this bleak portrait of America isn’t imaginary—it is the reality for an estimated 10 million older adults throughout our country who are food insecure.

But why?

Deeper problems

To fully understand the hunger crisis, we need to look beyond immediate nutritional needs and look at how a lifetime of inequity can lead an individual to such a vulnerable position. In America today, your zip code is as important—and in many cases, more important—than your genetic code in determining your overall health and well-being.

For example, if you are less educated; rent your home; are low-income; live in the southern United States, California, or Ohio; or are African American, Hispanic, or Native American, then you are at a greater risk of being food insecure. In other words, the scars of lifelong inequality run deep. These collective, basic factors, also known as social determinants, show us that preventing hunger is part of a societal context, and needs to be a lifelong endeavor.

We must focus on addressing the immediate needs of the hungry as well as employing preventative strategies to ensure that future generations of seniors don’t face the same issues of food insecurity. Senior hunger is not an inevitable outcome, but the accumulation of a lifetime of inadequately addressed social determinants. To cure hunger, we need to do more than treat the symptom, we need to address the causes.

“To cure hunger, we need to do more than treat the symptom, we need to address the causes.”

Finding the roots

Preventing hunger, ensuring everyone has a place to call home and securing economic opportunity through education are all critical parts of living a long, healthy and productive life. These are also large challenges we can’t overcome alone. This is why The Root Cause Coalition was founded: to bring health care systems, community leaders and social service organizations together to address hunger, food insecurity and other social determinants of health.

The U.S. health care system has a large stake in addressing hunger—the annual health care costs of unaddressed hunger are estimated at $130.5 billion. Many older adults are living longer but suffering from chronic conditions known to be worsened by food insecurity and hunger. Doctors are telling patients to eat a healthy and balanced diet, but many patients don’t have the resources or access to healthy, nutritious options.

Making changes

Many health care and public health visionaries are addressing these needs by partnering with food banks to write prescriptions for healthy foods—not more drugs—working with local colleges to start training programs for aspiring health professionals, joining forces with community groups to start employee-owned businesses in economically-depressed neighborhoods and so much more.

If we want to end the epidemic of older adult hunger we need to start early—by ensuring access to quality education, accessible public transportation, safe housing, economic opportunity and sufficient amounts of healthy food for all. Through creative collaboration we can end the disastrous cycle and address the root causes of poor health.