Phyllis McClain, 75, left, and Alice Barnes, 76, are served at the salad bar at Hattie Holmes Senior Wellness Center in Washington on Feb. 2. McClain is a regular at the center. “I love it. Keeps me from staying at home doing nothing,” she said. D.C. ranks high for having a significant number of aging adults who go hungry. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

A new national report on food insecurity among older Americans ranks the District fourth, just behind Mississippi.

The report says that more than 20 percent of the District’s elderly have concerns about eating enough food or the right kind of food, compared with more than 24 percent of seniors in Mississippi.

The estimates of senior hunger range from about 8 percent in Minnesota to more than 26 percent in Arkansas, which was ranked highest among states where seniors face the threat of hunger. Virginia and Maryland both had rates of about 14 percent.

The analysis – conducted by two university researchers on behalf of the nonprofit National Foundation to End Senior Hunger and the National Association of States United for Aging and Disabilities – says nearly 15.5 percent of elders, or 9.6 million people, in the United States face the threat of hunger. That number has increased dramatically in recent years: Between 2001 and 2013, those elders who faced some threat of food insecurity climbed 45 percent, the report says. The problem is most pervasive in the South and Southwest and among racial and ethnic minorities.

The report also points to the lingering effects of the last recession, particularly on low-income seniors. Since the beginning of the recession in 2007 and its end in 2013, the number of seniors with food insecurity has risen by 56 percent.

“My takeaway that is when the Great Recession hit, food insecurity skyrocketed,” said study co-author James P. Ziliak, who is an economics professor and founding director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky. “Among seniors, we haven’t really seen this recovery yet. It seems as though this is one manifestation of the recession that’s still lingering six years later.”

The aging of the U.S. population has accelerated since Baby Boomers began reaching retirement age in 2011. By 2030, one in five people will be 65 or older, and they will be more ethnically and racially diverse than in past generations.

Advocates for the elderly and low-income people say the report highlights the need for public action to ensure that older people are eating enough and eating well, because poor nutrition heightens the risk of health problems that can endanger their lives and cost taxpayers more in the end.

The report – authored by Ziliak and University of Illinois agriculture and consumer economics professor Craig Gundersen – analyzed USDA survey data from 2013. It found that the majority of seniors who are food insecure are white and have incomes above the poverty line. But the risk is higher among other groups. Besides those who live in the South and Southwest or are minorities, those with lower incomes and those senior citizens who are younger –  ages 60 to 69 – have higher percentages of food insecurity, the report says.

Douglas Besharav, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, said the report points to the difficulty older people face in the current economy but cautioned against reading too much into the word “hunger.”

The survey measuring food insecurity is broadly worded and the criteria for assessing hunger are open to debate, he said. For example, a person could be said to be facing the “threat of hunger” simply by answering affirmatively to one question in the survey. The questions range in specificity and severity, such as, “We couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals” or “In the last 12 months, did you or other adults in the household ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money for food?”

“This is a highly controversial measure. It should be used with great care, and it doesn’t measure hunger,” Besharov said. However, he said the survey does capture the economic uncertainty facing people who are living on fixed incomes or getting by on Social Security.

Ziliak also cautioned against misinterpreting the results, and acknowledged that the survey reflects food insecurity, not necessarily hunger per se. But he said it’s still an important index of the real financial stress many elders feel.

“I think what it’s capturing is this economic insecurity,” Ziliak said.