With Americans living longer than ever before, the growth in the number of older adults continues to climb.
At the same time, food insecurity, physical disability, and chronic disease cripple aging adults, interfering with their ability to maintain good nutrition.
Fortunately, several meal programs for seniors exist that provide a range of nutrition-related services aimed at reducing hunger and food insecurity while promoting socialization, health, and well-being.
This article lists seven meal programs for seniors, explaining their benefits and how they differ.
1. Meals on wheels
Home-delivered nutrition services, commonly known as meals on wheels, is a program that delivers meals to older adults at home who are housebound and cannot prepare meals for themselves (1).
The Older Americans Act (OAA) funds 38% of the program with the remaining funds coming from state or local sources, private donations from foundations, corporations, and federal block grants (2).
The program has more than 5,000 locally-run programs that are dedicated to addressing the nutritional and social needs of America’s most at-risk elderly (3).
Individuals age 60 and older and their spouse (regardless of age) can participate in meals on wheels.
2. Congregate Nutrition Services
The congregate nutrition services provides meals to older adults in a variety of group settings, such as senior centers, schools, and community centers (1).
The program is funded by the OAA and provides older adults with opportunities for social engagement and volunteering, contributing to their overall health and well-being.
Like the meals on wheels services program, adults age 60 and older and their spouse of any age may participate in the congregate nutrition meal programs.
3. Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)
The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) supplements the diets of low-income older adults at least 60 years of age with nutritious United States Department of Agricultural (USDA) foods (4).
The program also provides nutrition education as a required component.
Food packages include a variety of foods, such as low and non-fat dairy products, lean meats and proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, and legumes (5).
4. Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)
The Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) provides low-income older adults at least 60 years old with coupons that can be exchanged for fruits, vegetables, honey, and herbs at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and community supported agricultural programs (6).
National funding for the program varies, is limited, and benefits are only available during harvest season.
Along with locally-produced foods, SFMNP recipients also receive nutrition education from state agencies on how to select, store, and prepare the fresh fruits and vegetables they buy with the coupons.
5. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formally known as food stamps, is a federal program that provides nutrition benefits to low-income individuals and families, including older adults (7).
Those eligible for SNAP benefits receive an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card to buy groceries at authorized food stores and retailers.
Unfortunately, less than half of eligible older adults participate in SNAP benefits, either because they may not be aware that they are eligible, or may feel stigma about receiving welfare (8).
In either case, participation in SNAP benefits can help older adults overcome health problems and challenges related to food insecurity.
6. The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)
The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is a federal program that supplements the diets of low-income adults — including older adults — with emergency food assistance (9).
The USDA provides foods and funds to state distributing agencies to operate the meal program.
The amount of food each state receives is based on several factors including the number of unemployed and low-income residents.
States then provide the foods to local agencies like food banks, who in turn distribute the food to organizations that directly serve the public, such as food pantries and soup kitchens.
7. Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)
The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) is a federal program that provides reimbursements for nutritious meals and snacks to adults age 60 or older enrolled in an adult day care facility (10).
Adult day care facilities provide care and socialization for older adults who need assistance or supervision during the day while their primary caregivers go to work or take a respite from their caregiving duties.
Adult day care facilities may be approved to claim reimbursement for serving up to two meals and one snack to each eligible older adult.
The bottom line
Food insecurity, physical disability, and multiple chronic diseases are factors that affect nutrition in older adults.
Nutrition and meal programs funded by the OAA such as home-delivered and congregate nutrition services are crucial for helping older adults maintain good nutrition and their independence for longer.
Several other federally administered meal programs for seniors also help ensure access to healthy foods and nutrition services like nutrition education.