Today is the 49th anniversary of senior nutrition programs being added to the Older Americans Act (OAA), an important milestone in federal efforts to address food insecurity among the elderly.  The original Older Americans Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his vision for a Great Society.  OAA senior nutrition programs include Congregate Meals (served in the community) and Home Delivered Meals (brought directly to seniors’ homes).

We talked to the National Committee’s director of government relations and policy, Dan Adcock, about this landmark anniversary, which roughly coincides with the first anniversary of the COVID pandemic.

As a former staffer on the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, Dan helped write an update of the Older Americans Act.  In 2018, he rode along with Meals on Wheels to deliver meals to seniors in the San Diego, CA area.  He told Entitled to Know, “The seniors who answered the door greeted us with huge smiles and ample gratitude, not only for bringing them lunch or dinner, but for their only social interaction all day.”

What does the 49th anniversary of senior nutrition programs being added to the OAA mean to American seniors?

ADCOCK:   This year’s anniversary is especially timely given that local home-delivered meal programs throughout the country have risen to the occasion during the COVID pandemic by becoming the sole source of nutrition and social contact for millions of older Americans.  That makes this a landmark year, of sorts.

How does the nutrition component of OAA fit into President Johnson’s vision of a Great Society?

ADCOCK:  A Great Society doesn’t let its most vulnerable citizens live in poverty or go hungry.  Adding a nutrition program to LBJ’s vision of the Older Americans Act was a compassionate step to make the program more fully serve the needs of seniors.

What are the main benefits of the Congregate Meals program?  What does it give seniors that they otherwise wouldn’t have?

ADCOCK:   The Congregate Meals program encourages seniors to get out of the house, socialize with other people, and get at least one nutritious meal a day.  Unfortunately, many congregate meal centers are closed because of the pandemic. As soon as the pandemic is over, we want to encourage older Americans (who are able) to partake in congregate meals in their communities.

Why are home delivered meals (Meals on Wheels) so important to America’s seniors?

ADCOCK:  Home delivered meals often provide seniors who can’t easily leave their homes with nutrition and social contact they wouldn’t otherwise have.  Since it wasn’t safe for many seniors to leave their homes during the pandemic, the need for home delivered meals has become even more apparent.  That’s why the home-delivered meals program needs to have the capacity to scale-up to handle future emergencies.

A Meals on Wheels delivery center in San Diego, CA

Which of your own personal or professional experiences informed your view of these programs?

ADCOCK:  As a staffer on the House Committee on Education and Labor, I helped write an update of the Older Americans Act, including home delivered meals.  While the committee heard testimony from many witnesses who ran senior nutrition programs, the experience of actually delivering meals to seniors as a volunteer gave me first-hand experience of how invaluable home delivered meals are to the people we visited.  Every member of Congress should have the experience of seeing the smiling faces of seniors who receive a hot meal and much-needed social interaction.

How would you characterize funding levels for OAA nutrition programs today?  Less than adequate? Just about adequate? And do we need better funding moving forward?

ADCOCK:  Over the past 20 years, the OAA has lost ground due to our rapidly-increasing elderly population. Unfortunately, federal funding has not kept pace with either inflation and demographic changes. Eligible seniors face waiting periods for many OAA services, including home delivered meals, in most states.  Fortunately, for Fiscal Year 2020, total OAA funding, including supplemental funding to respond to the needs of seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic, reached its highest level ($3.220 billion) in the Act’s 55-year history. This trend continued into Fiscal Year 2021 with an increase of $96 million.  While it took a pandemic to finally provide adequate funding for the Older Americans Act, I am concerned that when things get back to normal, Congress may return to the usual practice of underfunding these vital programs, despite the needs of our growing elderly population.

How did the $750 million in additional funding for nutrition programs end up in the COVID bill and why is that significant?

ADCOCK:  Congress recognized that seniors stuck at home would go without food during this emergency unless OAA nutrition programs, especially home-delivered meals, received additional funding.

What do we as an organization want to see on this issue moving forward? Will senior hunger/food insecurity continue to be a problem, and will the demand for these programs increase?

ADCOCK:  The National Committee wants to ensure that lawmakers don’t slip back into the habit of neglecting senior nutrition programs.  As 10,000 Americans turn 65 a day, the demand for all OAA services, including congregate and home delivered meals, will only grow.