I learned only belatedly that last month was Older Americans Month — an after-the-fact answer to why my social media accounts had so many links to posts, feature stories and the like about seniors.
We who’ve entered our supposedly golden years are, as a whole, better off than younger people, thanks mainly to Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare. But substantial numbers of us suffer hardships of various sorts. And in some cases, public programs don’t serve us as well as they could.
As followers know, I’m passionate about food. So I’ll deal here with what public programs do — and don’t — to ensure that all seniors have enough of it and of the right kinds for lives as healthy as we older folks can expect.
Seniors at Risk of Hunger, Despite SNAP
Nearly 9% of households with at least one elderly member were food insecure in 2014. These, as you probably know, were households that couldn’t always afford enough food for everyone to eat healthfully.
Elderly people living alone had a slightly higher rate of food insecurity. And 3.8% of them — about 480,000 — didn’t always have enough to eat, healthful or otherwise.
The Food Research and Action Center views such evident struggles with hunger as a symptom of “senior SNAP gaps” — gaps state agencies and community-based organizations can partially close.
Agencies, for example, can make the application process simpler by, among other things, replacing an extremely burdensome requirement to document medical expenses with a standard excess medical deduction.
Both they and community-based organizations can do targeted outreach to seniors who probably could receive SNAP benefits, but haven’t applied. We’ve long known various reasons for this that outreach can address.
Seniors don’t know they’re eligible, for example. They’d feel ashamed to receive a welfare benefit. Or they believe (wrongly) that they’d be effectively taking food away from someone needier.
But this is far from the whole story, as a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis shows. Elderly people living alone — as the vast majority of those in SNAP do — received, on average, $119 a month in 2012-13.
That translates into about $1.30 per meal — yet another sign that SNAP benefits are too low. Too low for anyone, but for some seniors especially because they can’t stretch their benefits as the food plan USDA uses to set them assumes.
They may, for example, not have ready access to a full-service grocery store — and even more likely, not a form of transportation that would enable them to stock up on food for a week, let alone buy more of what’s on sale.
They may not have either the kitchen facilities or the capacities to prepare their meals from scratch either. But neither they nor anyone else can use SNAP benefits for carryout meals. And microwaveable meals are obviously budget-busters.
USDA cited the age-related challenges in its fact sheet for last year’s Older Americans Month. Yet only two initiatives it announced then addressed problems inherent in the food plan — both pilots, including one I’ve celebrated before.
It would perhaps enable more seniors — and people with disabilities, regardless of age — to use their SNAP benefits for home-delivered groceries. But the benefits would still reflect unrealistic assumptions.
Hunger Not Only Because of SNAP Gaps
Some seniors, of course, can’t get out and about at all — or cook food delivered to them, whether through the SNAP purchasing and delivery option or by some well-meaning relative or friend.
Meals on Wheels enables them to eat, though generally not every day, my Googling around suggests. Those who can get out and about can get meals at a community center, church or some other facility that has them eating together.
The Older Americans Act is a major source of funding for both. Congress recently reauthorized it, with some improvements in the meals portion.
That, however, doesn’t ensure any particular level of funding for nutrition assistance — or any other service state agencies can use their OAA share for. The programs get whatever Congress decides in any given year.
So they took a hit when the Budget Control Act required across-the-board spending cuts. Congress has reportedly restored what the nutrition programs lost. But they’ve gotten no increase in the past two years.
Not surprising then that communities still report waiting lists for Meals on Wheels. A genuine risk of malnutrition, it seems — and a foregone opportunity to reduce other health risks.
A recent study of that fine control-group kind found that daily home-delivered meals improved seniors’ mental health and sense of well-being more than frozen foods delivered weekly.
The Meals on Wheels group also reported falling less, suggesting potential cost-savings beyond those that simply providing enough to eat would achieve.
Further savings, of course, insofar as home-delivered meals can enable seniors to age in place, as most of us want to, rather than moving to a nursing home — at a cost so high that all but the wealthiest (or best-insured) would ultimately have to rely on Medicaid.
As more of us live longer and the costs of feeding us rise, the OAA nutrition programs will need more money to remain an effective part of the food safety net.
This is also true for other public programs that help feed low-income seniors — the Child and Adult Care Food Program, for example. The meals and snacks it subsidizes don’t make much of a dent in senior hunger — only 120,000 or so adults served and not all of them elderly.
A piece of the food safety net nonetheless — and one I would think already needs more money, given the reimbursement rates.
The bottom line here is the bottom line. Food insecurity and hunger — among seniors, children and everyone in between — is a problem Congress can solve. But it can’t without shortchanging other basic needs until it puts a higher priority on them than on reducing the deficit by spending cuts alone.
Down from the soapbox now so that I, among the fortunate, can go fix dinner. But I’ll climb back on it to take up housing — another basis need that even more seniors can’t afford.