Medicare eligibility linked to more pantry visits, improved food safety

Medicare eligibility linked to more pantry visits, improved food safety





DALLAS – September 22, 2022 – Low-income seniors were seven times more likely to visit a food pantry within a year of becoming eligible for Medicare, which improved food security, according to new research from UT Southwestern.

Sandi Pruitt, Ph.D.

The findings, published in Economic prospects and policies applied, were based on data compiled from 543 households that visited Crossroads Community Services, a food pantry in Dallas. Study leaders Sandi Pruitt, Ph.D., associate professor at the Peter O’Donnell Jr. School of Public Health, and Tammy Leonard, Ph.D., professor and chair of economics at the University of Dallas, said several factors may have contributed to the increased use of the pantry.

“Anecdotally, we believe that Medicare eligibility may increase the time an individual has to access transportation, complete visits, and wait in line if necessary,” Dr. Pruitt said.

“Additionally, we know that eligibility for Medicare for most people also coincides with eligibility for Social Security benefits, and there are many services available to help seniors access those benefits,” said Dr. Leonard, who is also an adjunct professor at the O’Donnell. School of Public Health. “Older people may become aware of other sources of assistance and/or experience a reduction in the stigma that may be associated with accessing safety net services when they were younger.”

Using a rich database of surveys and pantry visitation data from Crossroads Community Services that was developed through the organization’s community partnership with UT Southwestern and the University of Dallas , Dr. Pruitt and his colleagues have spent the last decade probing several dimensions of food insecurity for community residents. A previous study using this data found that more consistent use of the pantry led to reduced food insecurity and improved health.

“We worked to build this dataset locally to fill a gap in the literature on how food aid is associated with health,” Dr Pruitt said. “Now we are beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem and what we need to do to improve the health of this truly underserved and vulnerable group.”

For this study, first author Erline Martinez-Miller, Ph.D., who was a postdoctoral fellow at UTSW at the time of the study, began by hypothesizing that pantry use would increase as that individuals would reach the age of 65. At regular intervals, she and Dr. Leonard analyzed both the level of food insecurity and the number of pantry visits among low-income seniors visiting Crossroads in the two years before and after their 65th birthday.

“Through our surveys, we found an almost sevenfold increase in the number of visits per senior household in the year after Medicare eligibility compared to the year before, and we also found that the prevalence of food insecurity was 15% lower among those eligible for Medicare than among older adults who were not yet eligible,” Dr. Martinez-Miller said. “Coupled together, an increase in visits could be interpreted as an increased ability to improve household food security.

What researchers don’t yet understand is why, after peaking around their 65th birthday, visits began to steadily slow over the next two years. The team suspects the answer may lie in people who have more difficulty accessing services due to health issues and declining functional ability as they age.

Food insecurity is a $700 million annual problem for the United States in terms of health care costs alone. Dr. Pruitt hopes this study can help pantry operators identify key pivot points where they can strongly encourage continued visits for those experiencing food insecurity as they weather life’s financial storms.

“It is so important that we ensure that food aid is normalized and de-stigmatized and that people get what they need, because individuals cannot be full members of their families or communities in our society if they don’t have enough food,” Dr. Pruitt said.

Dr. Pruitt sits on the board of Crossroads Community Services. His tenure began after the study data was collected.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes and includes 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Full-time faculty of more than 2,900 are responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and committed to rapidly translating scientific research into new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 100,000 inpatients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 4 million outpatient visits annually.



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