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Nutrition program to fall short on addressing food insecurity and malnutrition

March 2023 is the 50th anniversary of National Nutrition Month. Although nutrition is key to the seven dimensions of wellness in active aging, recent American policy changes will likely increase older adults’ risk for food insecurity and malnutrition. Over 40 million Americans face deep cuts in their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits when payments return to pre-pandemic levels this spring.

For individuals receiving the minimum benefit--many of whom are older adults living alone--monthly food assistance payments will fall from $281 to $23. Such a decrease poses many problems for older Americans, so other federal health and nutrition programs should be used to help bridge the gap and support older adult nutrition.

Older adults need access to healthy, nutrient-dense foods to decrease their risk for malnutrition, but such foods can be too expensive for older adults living on a fixed income, particularly when you factor in high inflation rates and reduced SNAP benefits. Research showed that the higher pandemic-level SNAP benefits doubled the impact of reducing food insecurity in an older adult population in Georgia when compared to the lower, prepandemic benefits, 4.7% reduction from 2.1%.

Older adults who lack food security are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions, experience lower nutrient intake and be at greater risk of falls and malnutrition. As one in two older adults are malnourished or at risk of being malnourished, a greater risk for food insecurity means a greater risk for malnutrition and all the problems that come with it.

Undermining goals for ending hunger, improving nutrition

In September 2022, the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health committed to the dual goals of ending hunger and improving nutrition in our nation by 2030. The conference called for expanding-not reducing-federal nutrition programs. Participants recommended expanding incentives for fruits and vegetables in SNAP and making it easier to apply for and use SNAP benefits.

The USDA recently expanded produce prescription programs and other nutrition incentive programs in the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP), to encourage individuals to eat more healthfully by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition, with other regulatory changes, more retailers are now able to accept online ordering for SNAP, which can help improve access.

Encouraging older adults to sign up for SNAP

Although SNAP benefits are being reduced to prepandemic levels, nutrition advocates can still advocate for reducing food insecurity and malnutrition among older adults. About three out of five older adults who qualify to receive SNAP are not enrolled--an estimated five million people in all. Increasing SNAP enrollment could help decrease malnutrition among older adults, so understanding how to reach out to this population is key. Research by National Council on Aging (NCOA) has produced many ideas for informing this population about the potential benefits of food assistance programs. Those ideas include:

  • Partnering with organizations who already reach older adults, such as food banks and tax prep programs for low-income residents;
  • Offering assistance to help more older adults enroll in food and nutrition support programs like SNAP;
  • Reframing messages about SNAP benefits to demonstrate its value and reduce stigmas; and
  • Using NCOA’s benefits checkup to help older adults learn about eligibility and apply for food assistance programs.

Providing nutrition safety net through other programs

Federal programs other than SNAP can also help meet older adult nutrition needs. Specifically, Older Americans Act (OAA) nutrition programs, such as Meals on Wheels and congregate meals, can provide both food and socialization and help screen older adults for nutrition problems. These programs are open to anyone 60 and older, regardless of income level. The Eldercare Locator Tool can help you find OAA nutrition programs in your area.

Low-income older adults can also access the Senior Farmers Market program, which offers fresh produce, or the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which offers a monthly box of healthy foods.

Recognizing the importance of social determinants of health, the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently began approving test programs allowing Medicaid to reimburse for nonmedical needs. Arkansas Medicaid will cover health-related social needs, which include nutrition counseling and healthy-meal preparation. Oregon’s pilot will cover short-term food assistance, cooking and nutrition classes and medically tailored meals, which provide meals designed to meet the needs of individuals living with chronic disease. North Carolinians on Medicaid will be able to access fruit and vegetable prescriptions and medically tailored, home-delivered meals. Encouraging older adults to make good, healthy food choices is expected to help states save money by reducing the need for medical visits and medication and by helping individuals control serious illness.

In the community, hospitals and local organizations such as food banks have launched their own produce prescription programs and food pharmacies to help people access healthy food. For these programs to succeed, they will need support from local organizations and communities to increase visibility and participation.

Advocating for nutrition programs

This year the US farm bill--80% of which funds federal nutrition programs--will be reauthorized for another five years. The reauthorization process allows updates and changes to nutrition programs and determines funding for government nutrition programs including SNAP, CSFP and GusNIP. It’s essential to strengthen and protect SNAP as cuts in this safety net program leaves many older adults struggling to access nutritious food. You can take action and urge the older adults you work with to get engaged too.

Bob Blancato is the national coordinator of Defeat Malnutrition Today and the executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs.

Mary Beals-Luedtka is the Northern Arizona Council of Governments Aging Director and immediate past chair of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs.

Note: This information is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from research. The view expressed here are not necessarily those of the ICAA, we encourage you to make your own health and business decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified professional.


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