Hunger in America is a growing public health crisis that costs the U.S. healthcare system more than $130 billion each year, and it does not discriminate! Millions of Americans, from infants to older adults, have limited or inconsistent access to adequate nutritious and safe foods, which is particularly concerning among older adults due to the rapid growth of the older adult population. The older adult population is estimated to increase to more than 22 percent of the total U.S. population by the year 2050. Currently, one in six older adults face the threat of hunger and tend to resort to buying less nutritious foods, reducing their meal portions or completely skipping meals one or more times per week, which can lead to malnutrition.
As many as one in two older adults are at risk for malnutrition.
There is no single reason for the increasing threat of hunger among older adults, but what we do know is that it affects our most vulnerable older adult populations including racial/ethnic minorities, those that live alone or are the primary caregivers for grandchildren, those that are disabled, unemployed or low-income, and those that live in southern states such as Louisiana and Alabama.
Fortunately, there are several federal nutrition programs and emergency food referral programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) and the Congregate and Home-Delivered Meal programs that are available to help combat the threat of hunger. However, some of these programs are severely underutilized. For example, SNAP, the nation’s largest food and nutrition assistance program for low-income Americans that provides monthly benefits to purchase food at SNAP-authorized grocery stores, farmers’ markets and food retail outlets, is only being utilized by 42 percent of eligible older adults.
For many older adults in Mount Vernon, New York, the threat of hunger is a stark reality. Of the city’s 69,000 residents, 15 percent are adults 65 years and older, and 35 percent of these individuals receive food assistance. However, for the past 30 years, the City of Mount Vernon Department of Recreation has been leading efforts to address hunger among the city’s older adults through participation in SNAP outreach and enrollment, as well as congregate and home-delivered meal offerings. The department engages more than 1,500 individuals per year in SNAP outreach and enrollment activities. Those seeking assistance can walk into the community centers and visit the information and assistance staff where they are provided with information about eligibility and benefits, and in some cases are assisted with completing the required forms for submission. But this benefit is not restricted to those able to visit the community centers. Home-bound older adults are also able to receive assistance with SNAP enrollment during in-home visits.
In addition, each week, Monday through Friday, agency staff prepare and serve meals for approximately 120 older adults who attend the congregate meal program at the Doles and Amory Senior Centers. In addition, another 135 home-bound older adults across four districts receive meals prepared, packaged and delivered by the agency staff (nutrition aides) each day.
“For many, this may be the only healthy meal they receive daily,” said Darren Morton, Commissioner for the City of Mount Vernon Department of Recreation. The meal programs are also supplemented with workshops on the identification of healthy food and drinks, how to read food labels and the correlation between healthy food choices and physical activities, as well as a bi-monthly Saturday soup kitchen and weekly farmers’ markets in partnership with Feeding Westchester.
Although the agency has been engaged in older adult hunger efforts for the last 30 years, staff is always seeking innovative ways to serve more Mount Vernon residents to create a healthier and happier Mount Vernon. Check out this video for a day with the department’s meals on wheels crew.
Cheers to Healthy Aging in Parks!
Lesha Spencer-Brown, MPH, CPH, is a Senior Program Manager at NRPA.