Melanie is an RD who works mainly with older adults. She provides consulting services to her local Meals on Wheels (MOW) program, where her duties include writing menus and providing nutrition expertise for the organization. From time to time, Melanie volunteers as a MOW substitute driver. Her work with MOW has exposed Melanie to the realities of food insecurity for the older adults in her community, and she wants to learn more on the topic.
What Is Food Insecurity?
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, food insecurity is “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” According to the USDA, low food security is characterized by “reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet.” Households that experience food insecurity are uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, food to meet the needs of all household members. Access to food affects millions of households and individuals of all ages across the country.
Food Insecurity in Older Adults
A reported 7.9% of households with an older adult and 8.6% of households where an older adult lives alone are considered food insecure. Households with grandchildren living in the home have a higher incidence. Some demographic groups of older Americans, including those who are black or Hispanic or have extreme obesity, are more likely to be food insecure. The causes in older adults are varied and include poverty and/or limited resources, increased disability (making food shopping, preparation, and other activities of daily living difficult), frail or poor health, and oral or dental problems.
Consequences of Food Insecurity in Older Adults
Food-insecure older adults have been found to have lower nutrient intakes and worse health outcomes than other older adults; they’re 65% more likely to have diabetes, twice as likely to report fair or poor general health, 2.3 times more likely to suffer from depression, 19% more likely to have high blood pressure, and 57% more likely to have heart failure. Food insecurity also is associated with poor quality of life. Among older adults, it can increase risk of disability and negatively impact physical, emotional, and financial status. Addressing the problem of food insecurity in older adults is a clear way to help improve their health and quality of life.
Programs and Services
Fortunately, there are several federal programs available to help address food insecurity in low-income older adults, including food delivery services such as MOW. A brief description of these programs and services is outlined below.
• Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, offers nutrition assistance to eligible low-income individuals and families.
• Child and Adult Care Food Program provides nutritious meals to elderly individuals in adult daycare settings.
• Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program provides low-income seniors with coupons to exchange for food at farmer’s markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture programs.
• The Emergency Food Assistance Program supplements the diet by providing emergency food and nutrition assistance at no cost.
• Commodity Supplemental Food Program supplements the diet with USDA foods.
• Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations provides USDA foods to American Indian households on Indian reservations and in approved areas in Oklahoma.
• Older Americans Act Nutrition Program provides meals and related nutrition services to older adults in a variety of settings, including meal delivery and congregate meal sites. Services are targeted to those with the greatest social and economic need.
• Eldercare Locator connects people to services for older adults.
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Program
• Home and community-based services provide a variety of services for Medicaid beneficiaries based in their homes or communities.
Addressing Food Insecurity at the Local Level
Like Melanie, RDs who work with older adults certainly can benefit from having knowledge of federal programs and services that can help their clients address food insecurity. The key to making a real difference in people’s lives is helping them access assistance locally. Fortunately, the websites listed above have links to help clients and RDs find access to federal programs and services in their local area.
Other food assistance programs and services are available in many communities. For example, Feeding America can help Melanie locate a local food bank. The local homeless shelter may offer free or low-cost meals that are available to the community, and faith-based organizations may provide food banks and/or meals.
County health or social services departments are a good place for Melanie to learn about both federal and local programs and services, and information often is available with an easy click of a button on a website.
Connecting Individuals With Services
Melanie is amazed to learn how many services are available for food-insecure older adults in her community. But she knows that knowledge is just the first step; the key to addressing food insecurity is connecting people with the variety of programs and services that are available to them. For that reason, Melanie has decided to become a more active volunteer with MOW and plans to become an advocate for addressing food insecurity in all aspects of her work with older adults.
— Becky Dorner, RDN, LD, FAND, is widely known as one of the nation’s leading experts on nutrition and long term health care. Her company, Becky Dorner & Associates, Inc, is a trusted source of valuable continuing education, nutrition resources, and creative solutions. Visit www.beckydorner.com to sign up for free news and information.