Op-ed by Ellie Hollander and Bob Blancato, published in The Hill on January 20, 2024.
Most of us just wrapped up another holiday season, enjoying friends, family, festivities and time off. Yet, there was little to celebrate for too many older adults, as hunger takes no breaks. And unless Congress acts early in 2024, this hardship will continue.
As it stands now, 12 million older adults worry about having enough food, and one in three Meals on Wheels programs has a waitlist with seniors waiting an average of three months for vital meals. Funding levels are failing to keep pace with inflation and the increased demand of an ever-growing senior population. Congress must begin addressing senior hunger by recognizing the value of the Older Americans Act (OAA) Nutrition Program, the best-known example of which is Meals on Wheels. These community-based programs provide lifesaving services to seniors across the country, and the best way to support them is to fund the OAA adequately.
For more than 50 years, OAA nutrition programs have been the gold standard of a successful public-private partnership, having a positive impact on critical social drivers of health: adequate nutrition and social connection. These programs improve the lives of millions of older adults and allow them to remain independent in the comfort of their own homes and out of far more costly health care settings. These programs are an investment in health promotion and chronic illness management. They are an investment in alleviating social isolation and loneliness. And they are an investment in health care cost reduction. They can provide one year of home-delivered meals for roughly the same cost as ten days in a nursing home or one day in a hospital, saving taxpayer dollars on Medicare and Medicaid.
Congress recognized these programs’ value during the pandemic by passing four emergency bills that nearly doubled federal funding to quickly respond to a problem that existed before COVID-19 exacerbated it. New data expected from the Administration for Community Living, the federal agency which runs the Older Americans Act, will demonstrate the dramatic increase in the number of seniors served due to pandemic funding. Even today, the number of seniors benefiting from programs like Meals on Wheels far exceeds pre-pandemic levels. However, emergency funding has dried up, and programs are struggling more than ever to make ends meet. In a recent survey, 97 percent of responding senior nutrition programs reported needing increased funding to keep up with inflation.
The reality is that the loss of the pandemic-era funding levels has led to a hunger cliff. Yet, it does not have to be this way. Our organizations are asking Congress for $1.284 billion in federal funding for the OAA Nutrition Program. We also urge the president to include the OAA Nutrition Program in any supplemental funding request. These essential programs and the seniors they serve face as serious an emergency as any other domestic program.
It is rare to have the opportunity to invest in programs that have withstood the test of time and continue to deliver on their initial promise. That’s why we make this appeal on behalf of the millions of older adults who rely on Meals on Wheels as a lifeline to prevent hunger and malnutrition. It’s time for senior hunger to take a holiday.
Ellie Hollander is president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America. Bob Blancato is the executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs.