Forty-nine years ago today, Congress added senior nutrition programs to the Older Americans Act, ushering in a new era of federal commitment to food security for our nation’s seniors. This is not to say that no older Americans go undernourished now. But, thanks to the inclusion of nutrition in the Older Americans Act, generations of seniors who otherwise may have gone hungry have received hot, healthy meals. And it’s not simply about filling empty stomachs. Enhanced food security is associated with better overall health outcomes for seniors. It even reduces the elderly’s risk of falling and injuring themselves at home.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Older Americans Act (OAA) into law in 1965, along with Medicare and Medicaid. The OAA was enacted in order to protect the health and well-being of the nation’s seniors as part of President Johnson’s Great Society. The original law did not include nutrition services. But in 1972, the Congregate Meals program was added to the OAA, providing seniors in need with food in community settings. Six years later, Congress amended the OAA again to include home delivered meals for seniors. Meals on Wheels is probably the best-known recipient of federal funding under this part of the law.
The congregate meals program serves hot, nutritious meals at senior centers, faith-based facilities and senior housing communities, among other settings. The majority of seniors receiving congregate meals rely on the program for at least half of their total food intake for the day. In a 2020 survey, more than 80 percent of participants said the congregate meal program improves their health, while some 70 percent reported that the program helps them live independently.
For seniors who cannot (or prefer not to) leave their homes, Meals on Wheels delivers hot, healthy meals directly to their doors. These seniors may be ill, living in poverty or lacking transportation, among other reasons. “We see people in need of food even if they live a few blocks from a grocery store,” says Katie Jantzi, Vice President for government affairs at Meals on Wheels America, a national leadership organization supporting community-based senior nutrition programs that collectively served 2.4 million seniors per year prior to the pandemic.
These programs not only supply necessary nutrition, but social interaction for seniors who may be living in isolation. As one Meals on Wheels volunteer in San Diego explained, “The seniors who answer the door greet us with huge smiles and ample gratitude — not only for bringing them lunch or dinner — but for what may be their only social interaction all day.”
This volunteer’s experience is confirmed by testimonials from seniors across the country. Mary, a retired educator with a debilitating back injury, says the program “is not just delivering meals. It also provides safety, security, someone to check on you.” In fact, Meals on Wheels staff and volunteers are often the first to spot health issues or other challenges that the seniors they serve are experiencing — and can refer them for additional resources.
OAA senior nutrition programs have been especially crucial to communities of color. Food insecurity rates for African-Americans and Latinos are double those of their white counterparts. “We know that older adults of color are more likely to experience food insecurity and to experience difficulty obtaining nutritious food in particular,” says Jantzi. Federal nutrition funding helps to reduce socioeconomic disparities, in accordance with the program’s Great Society roots.
If anything, the importance of senior nutrition programs has only increased during the COVID pandemic. Congregate meal centers have had to close due to safety precautions. Many seniors have not been able to safely venture out for groceries — and their families are not always in a position to help. By July, 2020, local Meals on Wheels programs reported they were serving an average of nearly 80 percent more meals than before the pandemic.
“During the past year, there’s been a heightened recognition of the importance of nutrition and social connection for everyone, not just seniors,” says Jantzi. “We want that recognition to continue, because it’s so important for communities and the older individuals they serve.” In order to meet growing demand, Congress wisely included an extra $750 million for OAA nutrition programs in the recently enacted American Rescue Act.
The OAA nutrition program is intensely popular, but that does not always protect it. President Trump proposed to eliminate three federal grant programs that help pay for OAA services, including home delivered meals. His budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, claimed that senior nutrition programs were not delivering on “the promises that we’ve made to people,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Today, senior nutrition programs need more, not less funding. Even before the pandemic, nearly 10 million seniors were threatened by hunger. Ten thousand Americans turn 65 each day. A growing senior population will increase the need for adequately funded senior nutrition programs. These programs are enormously cost-effective. Meals on Wheels can serve a senior for an entire year for about the same cost as one day in the hospital or ten days in a nursing home.
We believe that the program must continue to be adequately funded and allowed to continue its crucial mission. President Biden and Congress have already taken strides to enhance seniors’ food security through the American Rescue Act — a good sign for the program’s future. Millions of seniors who anxiously await the re-opening of their congregate meal programs — or to hear that knock on the door along with a hot, nutritious meal and a modest helping of companionship — are counting on us.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the nonprofit National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.