Disability and Hunger

Meals on Wheels Chicago considers many factors when planning for the future of our programs. In an effort to educate the public about our work and the increasing demand for home meal delivery services, we are releasing a series of essays focused on systemic problems that affect seniors and individuals with disabilities. In this essay we explore the link between disability and hunger. We hope highlighting these issues in relation to our mission will encourage our community to advocate for these vulnerable communities. In the meantime, Meals on Wheels Chicago will continue to raise funds for the home meal delivery program, providing our homebound neighbors with the food they need to stay healthy and independent. 

There are few vulnerable demographics in the U.S. left untouched by the potential for hunger, whether early or late in life. A systemic link exists between vulnerable populations and hunger—race, poverty and, in this case, disability all play a part in predicting whether individuals and families will suffer through hunger at some point in their lives.

People with disabilities face an increased set of challenges surrounding food insecurity. They often have difficulties physically accessing or getting to grocery stores, particularly those who live in food deserts, where grocery stores are scarce.

Those with mental health disabilities may have trouble navigating grocery stores or independently obtaining food without extra help. Higher rates of poverty have also been linked to disability, creating even more barriers those with disabilities must face in order to eat regularly and nutritiously.

Increased severity in food insecurity

The USDA reports that of those who face hunger in the U.S., households with working-age members with disabilities deal with more severe food insecurity than those without disabilities. Approximately one-third of all food-insecure households deal with very low food security, meaning at least one household member is not getting enough to eat. Meanwhile, around one-half of households where an adult has disabilities fall into the very-low food security category.

The trend is becoming worse with time—in 2010, around 29 percent of households where a working-age member had disabilities lived in a home with very low food security.

Meals on Wheels Chicago serves working-age individuals with disabilities 18 - 64 years old. After age 65 they are enrolled in the program serving seniors.
Did you know? The Meals on Wheels Chicago Home Delivered Meals for Individuals with Disabilities (HDMID) program serves people of working age from 18 to 64 years old. At age 65 these individuals are enrolled in the program serving seniors.

Moderate-income households struggle

While many would assume an income significantly above the poverty line would be the key to food security, those with disabilities face hunger at higher rates, even if they report household incomes three times higher than the federal poverty rate. For a single individual, an income three times the federal poverty rate is $38,280.*

75% of Meals on Wheels Chicago clients living with a disability live at or below the federal poverty rate
Did you know? Among Meals on Wheels Chicago clients who are living with a disability (referred to as HDMID clients), 75% reported incomes at or below the federal poverty rate.

Among households that did not have an adult member with a disability and who earned a moderate income, around four percent faced food insecurity. In moderate-income households where at least one adult was out of the workforce due to a disability, however, 22 percent faced food insecurity.

The prevalence of food insecurity even among households with moderate-level incomes points to the financial, as well as physical and mental, toll of disabilities. Those with disabilities face higher cost of living relative to those who do not have disabilities, which means these households have to earn more just to get by.

People with disabilities often have to pay for increased healthcare costs, medical devices, adaptations to their homes and personal assistance, much of which is not subsidized by federal or state governments. The cost of regular doctor or physical therapy appointments, counseling sessions, home care and other expenses add up quickly, forcing many individuals with disabilities and their working household members to face the decision whether to spend money on necessary disability costs or to put full meals on the table each day.

Studies have shown that some households are forced to reduce their medication spending in order to financially stay afloat. In other words, many with disabilities opt to skip taking their medications in order to pay bills or to spend on meals. One study found that 29 percent of those on Medicare in the U.S. due to disabilities either skipped medication, reduced dosage or chose not to fill a prescription due to the cost of medication.

As a result, those with disabilities, already in need of medical care, suffer further due to costs that prohibit being able to spend benefits and household income on necessities that include both food and medical care.

Even those without disabilities but who live in a home with a disabled household member face obstacles that make food security and health difficult to achieve. Many individuals have to work as sole income providers as well as caretakers for their household member with a disability. The emotional, mental, financial and physical stress can take its toll on these caretakers, as they then are more prone to developing mental and physical problems themselves.

Without support, these issues compound themselves over and over, creating a cycle in which households where a member has a disability have to make more money simply to survive, leaving families both under and above the poverty line to live with food insecurity.

No one should live with food insecurity, forced to choose between medication, doctors appointments, therapy sessions or food. All of these elements are necessary for anyone to live a healthy life under any circumstances. For those with disabilities and their loved ones, the decisions no one should have to make become even harder.

Programs like Meals on Wheels Chicago help fill these gaps and bring security to people in a wide set of circumstances, including those with disabilities. Whether someone lives alone and needs help getting food each day as well as socialization, or is living with loved ones who are struggling to make ends meet, Meals on Wheels Chicago is ready to help by bringing food and wellbeing to clients.

By Anne Bouleanu, Freelance Journalist and MOWC Contributor

*According to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a single individual living alone in 2020 is considered impoverished if their income level is at or below $12,760 per year. For a two-person household, that threshold is $17,240 per year. Households with three individuals are considered to be living in poverty if they have a household annual income of $21,720 or less.