We are full
Impact of COVID-19 on food security of low-income elderly populations in Seoul
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Project Background and Context

Why the food security of low-income elderly?

“Hello seniors,
the food facility is temporarily closed
to prevent the spread of infectious disease…”

코로나19 직격탄... 밥 굶는 어르신들 SE Daily (2020.Feb.16)

The We are full when we are full (WAF) project began after media reports that many places that had previously supported food insecure population were closed due to the prolonged coronavirus outbreak. I wanted to know 1) which groups in our society are most at risk of food insecurity in emergencies such as infectious diseases, 2) which places and methods of support are safest and most reliable, and 3) what can be improved in the current system in preparation for future disasters.

In the fall sprint of a public data laboratory, which ran from September to November 2020, I identified low-income seniors as most affected by social distancing policy and I selected them as the interest group of this project. According to Article 4 of the Elderly Welfare Act (Responsibility for Health and Welfare Promotion) and Article 7 of the Seoul Metropolitan Government Framework Ordinance on Elderly Welfare for the Realization of the Elderly-Friendly City, Seoul Metropolitan Government provides free meals to low-income elderly. Many facilities that provide free meals define low-income seniors as those aged 60 or older and eligible for the national basic living income or the “secondary poor” (less than 50% of the median income). The types of free meals offered to low-income senior citizens are 1) free meals at facilities for senior citizens and public “cafeterias for the elderly,” 2) lunch box delivery, and 3) side dishes delivery.

Public data used in the project

What data did I use?


In order to identify the elderly population by income (Social Security Research Institute) and the population by meal support project (Seoul Metropolitan Government), I have filed an information disclosure claim.


In order to figure out the budget size for each free meal program, I made a request for information disclosure to the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Service Facilities

In order to identify free meal service facilities for low-income senior citizens in Seoul, I made a request for information disclosure in Seoul and each autonomous district.

"If anyone can use it without limitation,
data ultimately helps citizens"

우리도 공익데이터는 처음이라, Parti (2020.Aug.14)

In this project, I wondered what data could be obtained and how it could be utilized in relation to food security for low-income seniors, but didn’t know where to begin. In this regard, the "public data laboratory" was a great opportunity to consult with data experts while working on this project.

Comparing the 2019 and 2020 data from 25 autonomous districts in Seoul, I observed the conditions for food security for low-income senior citizens and the changes before and after COVID-19. During the fall sprint, I paid attention to the status of free meal support for government programs in 2019 and 2020 managed by the autonomous district. The data I used were largely about population, budget and facilities.

Once I decided what data to find, I looked at how to get it. More public data was being provided than expected, but in order to accurately identify the latest data, I requested information disclosure claims for updates/clarification from the public agencies.

Low-income Senior Population At a Glance

How has the low-income elderly population in Seoul changed?

The average population of low-income senior citizens per autonomous district in 2020 was about 8,500.

As of August 2020, the average low-income elderly population per autonomous district was about 8,524 people, or 14.24% of the total elderly population, up 1,411 from about 7,113 (12.05%) in August 2019. In particular, as of 2020, about 4,020 people (46.7%) of the low-income elderly live alone.

Among low-income senior citizens, the average number of people receiving free meals is 1,158, about 13.75%, compared to 15.95% (1,103) in 2019, but the percentage of all low-income senior citizens decreased slightly. Similarly, when I narrowed down the free meal support government program to senior cafeterias, the average number in the autonomous district in 2020 was about 665 (7.83%), up from 591 (8.54%) in 2019, but the participation rate showed a decrease.

Free Meal Support Budget At a Glance

How was the Seoul Metropolitan Government's budget for meal support for low-income senior citizens used?

The average budget for free meals per district in 2020 was about 1.416 billion Korean won.

Information Disclosure Claims Seoul Metropolitan Government

The budget for supporting free meals for low-income senior citizens increased overall in 2020 compared to 2019, excluding the category of senior cafeterias. The average budget for free meals in the 25 autonomous districts of Seoul in 2020 was about 1.416 billion won, up about 137 million won from 2019.

The Free Meal Facilities At A Glance

Where is the facility that provides free meals to low-income senior citizens in Seoul?

The average number of free meal support facilities per autonomous district in 2020 was about 8.64.

Request for disclosure of information to senior welfare personnel in each autonomous district

Food security of low income elderly in 2019 vs. 2020

Food Security Index

How is COVID-19 affecting food security for low-income seniors?

COVID-19 and Food security of low income elderly

Timeline of social distancing implementation Source:
코로나19 확진자 및 정부 대응 주요 일지 YNA 1, 2
As the number of infected cases increased again as of November 2020, the free meal service facilities for senior citizens are facing another shutdown.

Social distancing and food security

How did the elderly react to the alternative meal?

In 2020, about five senior cafeterias per district were temporarily closed for 248 days. As a result, about 495 senior citizens per district were provided with alternative meals.

Claim for disclosure of information of each autonomous district and interviews with facility personnel

Many free meal facilities temporarily stopped operating in mid-February when the first wave of the epidemic began. So that the seniors could eat more safely away from the risk of infection, all facilities that stopped operating at this time said they had provided alternative meals to seniors. Due to the spread of the infection, the duration of the alternative meal service was also extended as the practice of social distancing was prolonged. The alternative meal composition was varied from facility to facility, but fresh foods are usually provided along with instant rice and other ready-to-eat meals. What's the reaction of the elderly? I looked through the conversation with the person in charge of the free meal facility.

It's good to be able to take care of mealtimes without having to go out often and eat at any place and time.

"If the elderly want to refrain from going out with COVID-19 or if they have trouble moving around, they can take the alternative meals and have meals for a few days. "

"If they can't come in person, they can come on another day, or they can get a meal through their friend, caregiver, etc., so they can take more meals and save food. "

"When they come to the restaurant and have a meal, there is a fixed time, but if they take the alternative meal, they can eat at the time they want (with their family), so they like it."

I'd rather have a hot meal than an alternative meal.

"The diet is generally limited, so it seemed like the elderly were having a hard time eating it for a long time. "

"Before the pandemic, the elderly could have come out to eat, but as they went out less and spent longer alone, they expressed loneliness and depression. "

"The elderly who wanted to eat a variety of warm foods prefer to eating at the restaurant. "

Social distancing and food security

How was the experience of free meal service facility staff members?

"I call to check if they are doing well, but it's difficult to check their health condition because I can't see them. "

Interview with staff members

The opinions of those who were in charge of the elderly's meals in the facility varied. As serving alternative meals was prolonged, facility staff members were concerned about the elderly's psychological health as well as the elderly's diet. They acknowledge that, due to the COVID-19 infection concerns, it was better or realistic to provide alternative food for elderly people at the moment. However, there was a nutritional concern about the long-term serving of alternative meals because it is harder to meet the budget than the cooking at the facilities. Also, the staff can check the health of the elderly when the elderly come to eat, but as the facilities provide alternative meals, the staff can't do the check anymore, so some of them concerned that the staff members were most worried about the health of the elderly.


The fall sprint is over, but the WAF continues

At the end of the two-month journey, the number of COVID-confirmed cases has returned to a clear increase, and the daily life of this time before the pandemic feels distant. Despite this challenging situation, I hope this winter will be warmer for our neighbors in need including low-income senior citizens. WAF plans to continue to refine the data with more interest in the food security of its underserved communities, which COVID-19 has revealed more clearly. It would be great if anyone could learn more about food security through the WAF, become interested, and even starting one's own discovery.

The data of the WAF is available to anyone interested in food security for low-income senior citizens in Seoul.

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Geunhee Lee

Proposed and worked on project

Parti and Mentors

Assisted and adviced project progress

Seoul Metropolitan Government/District/Facilities staffs

Told the voice from the field

Want to know more about WAF?

Any suggestions or comments are welcome