Abstract: Food-Related Challenges of Older Korean American Widowed Women with Low Socioeconomic Status (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

587P Food-Related Challenges of Older Korean American Widowed Women with Low Socioeconomic Status

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
HeeSoon Lee, PhD, Associate Professor, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH
Mary-Jon Ludy, PhD, Associate Professor, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH
Background and Purpose

Life events, such as spousal death, negatively impact eating habits of older adults. This is especially true for immigrants with limited family and social connections in their new communities. Widowhood often causes loss of commensality (shared meals). Eating alone is a recognized risk factor for nutritional vulnerability in later life. Additionally, food insecurity occurs when households lack consistent, dependable food access for maintaining healthy, active lives; rates exceed the national average when incomes near the poverty line and women live alone. However, food assistance program use is lower among Asian populations than other racial/ethnic groups. This study’s aim was to investigate the food-related challenges of older Korean American widowed women with low socioeconomic status.


This cross-sectional, exploratory study used a qualitative methodology. Participants were residents of a low-income apartment complex in Troy, Michigan. Shortly before the COVID-19 outbreak, data were collected through face-to-face interviews with 22 Korean American widowed women aged ≥65 plus living in the U.S. and widowed for ≥5 years. Following transcription of audio-recorded interviews and review of observation notes, researchers generated common themes using inductive coding and peer consensus.


The most prominent theme was “dietary behavioral change due to the major life event of their spousal’s death” leading to unbalanced diets, skipping meals, and/or snacking when bored. After spousal death, many participants lacked interest in preparing or eating food due to loneliness. Additionally, cultural food preferences and financial challenges prevented them from eating out. Due to language difficulties, they hesitated to attend community senior centers. Under such circumstances, the ‘community kitchen’ in the apartment complex, where older widowed Korean American women met daily to cook and share cultural meals, played an important role in protecting participants from food insecurity and providing strong social support. Most participants expressed that the ‘community kitchen’ helped them recover their resilience in the context of eating behaviors. Many participants said, “I am very grateful for just one healthy meal per day served from the community kitchen.” Additional supports included children living nearby and an ethnic church that helped with transportation, grocery shopping, and meal preparation.

Conclusions and Implications

Social support through a ‘community kitchen’ was an important factor protecting participants from nutritional risk. Although life events can influence dietary behaviors at any age, the cumulative exposure to life events (e.g., spousal loss, loneliness) may be especially deleterious in old age because personal and social factors that strengthen feelings of control are weakened. Particularly, spousal bereavement can prompt altered food choice, fewer regular meals, and reduced meal preparation. In addition, due to cultural food preferences, minority older adults are less likely to use food assistance benefits (e.g., home-delivered meals), and language difficulties prevent them from engaging in senior center programming focused on mainstream preferences. Specialized food support policies and programming focusing on the nutritional needs of minority rachial/ethnic groups and their risk factors are warranted. Further research should focus on older Korean American widower men’s food-related challenges.