There are many things in life that we want and other things that are a necessity. Proper nutrition and having easy access to healthy food are both imperative for basic human survival, and yet, shockingly, some of the most vulnerable people in our communities are struggling to obtain these things.
Fortunately, there are several food assistance programs that help to ensure the elderly and disabled, the most vulnerable members of our society, are able to get the food they need without any problems. Knowing how and where to access these services is not always apparent.
Why Seniors & the Disabled Face Issues Getting Access to Proper Nutrition
It may be difficult to believe for many of us, but many seniors and disabled adults find it incredibly difficult to maintain a healthy diet. This is not down to one particular issue but a culmination of various problems.
Research has shown that there is a worrying number of cases of malnutrition in elderly admissions to hospital and this is not something that can simply be cured during their short stay. Often, patients need to continue taking supplements and receiving treatment long after they have been discharged from hospital. While many believe that your need for nutrition decreases as you age, studies have shown that the opposite is, in fact, true. What is even more worrying is that, in this belief, many seniors are neglected to take care of their nutritional needs, resulting in a variety of health problems including, but not limited to poor wound healing, immune system problems, and cognitive issues.
For different people, there may be varying problems with how and why they struggle to maintain a good diet.
- With poverty becoming a serious problem in the USA for many older adults and vulnerable people, one of the first things that people cut back on is food.
- There has been evidence to suggest that, as of 2010, as many as 38% of older adults have a physical disability. With this limited mobility, getting out to run errands such as doing a grocery shop becomes more difficult.
- When we get older, there is a significant chance that we will live alone. For a lot of seniors, the idea of cooking a meal for just themselves seems an incredible amount of effort and for some, a waste of time. While we may enjoy cooking for a partner or our children, when they live at home, it is very easy to lose interest once you live alone.
- Dementia and other cognitive issues are a huge problem for the older members of society. According to the CDC, there are currently thought to be more than 5 million Americans struggling with some form of dementia. This degenerative condition may result in the individual being unable to prepare food, forgetting to eat, and forgetting to purchase groceries.
- There has been a very significant focus on mental health in recent times and awareness is always being raised. However, many people still suffer in silence and for seniors or disabled people who are battling conditions like depression, it is very easy for the appetite to be lost, making it more challenging to maintain proper nutrition.
- Aside from problems with mental health, it is not uncommon for seniors to experience a loss of appetite for other reasons. Sometimes, this is a natural thing without any apparent cause, however, for some older adults, medications may reduce appetite.
- If a senior or disabled adult relies heavily on caregivers to meet their basic needs, this could cause problems with getting the correct nutrition. Perhaps the caregiver is stretched in terms of how many people they care for or if it is a family member, care may have to fit in around other commitments.
- We have already touched on the fact that disabilities may prevent a person from getting out to buy groceries but there could be other limitations such as the driving license being given up or the person struggling to drive.
- If the health issues of the senior limit their ability to eat, they may stop trying altogether. Problems with ill-fitting dentures, limited dexterity, or difficulty swallowing could all reduce a person’s desire to eat.
- It is not uncommon for the elderly to struggle to move around as much and this means that not as many calories are being burned. As a result, the person may not feel as hungry as quickly limiting the amount that they eat.
- Should the senses be affected by health conditions, this could lead to a poor experience when eating with certain foods lacking taste and smell. This often comes with age but it can be incredibly off-putting when trying to maintain a healthy diet.
It comes as a shock that as many as 10% of people over the 65, in the USA, are struggling with alcohol related issues, most notable, binge drinking. If alcohol is being consumed too often, this can limit the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, resulting in the diet being affected.
Food Poverty Among Seniors & the Disabled – A Very Real Problem
The more we learn about food poverty in vulnerable people, the more apparent it becomes that this is a very real and disturbing problem.
According to Feeding America, more than 7% of US seniors are considered to be ‘food insecure’ as of 2018. This is a bad enough figure, but when we consider that the number of seniors who struggle to gain access to or maintain a healthy diet is growing, it is not difficult to see that something needs to change. SNAP reports that the percentage of seniors who are considered to be ‘food insecure’ now stands at around 9%. While there are many food assistance programs available, a lot of these people are unaware of them or unsure of how to access them.
More worryingly, it would appear that those who are experiencing the most serious problems tend to be in minority groups. If we take a look at state figures, there is a very clear divide between North and South with Colorado being the healthiest state for the over 60’s with only 6.6% of seniors being considered at risk of starvation. Further down the country in Louisiana, this figure rises to a shocking 19.8%
As a result of the studies that have looked at food poverty in the elderly, it has been discovered that as many as 71% of households that took advantage of the SNAP program fell below the poverty line. But the issue of food poverty is not exclusive to poorer families or individuals, regardless of income, seniors all over the US are being affected for various reasons. It may also surprise you to learn that it is not necessarily the very old that are struggling; the most problems are noted among adults in the 60-65 age bracket.
So, while you may believe that the problem is not an issue for the elderly people in your family or social circle, it may be much closer to home that you think. What’s more, these vulnerable people are not likely to speak out about their suffering. It is therefore, incredibly important that the various resources on offer are brought to their attention so that this suffering can be eased.
Why Malnutrition is a Serious Problem for Seniors
Malnutrition is a problem for anybody but as we get older, our health may be even more adversely affected by factors like this. If a senior does not maintain the correct diet, any of the following problems might be caused.
- Food insecure does not only refer to a lack of any food but also a lack of access to healthy foods. If the older adult is only eating foods that are high in sugars and fats, this can result in obesity which has a wealth of related health problems such as type 2 diabetes.
- The bones naturally become more fragile as we age so including the right levels of calcium in the diet is essential. Without this, the bones lose density and if falls occur, there is a higher risk of fractures. Conditions like osteoporosis then become much more likely.
- When correct nutrition is not maintained, this can have a direct effect on the immune system. The immune system starts to deteriorate with age but vitamin C from fresh fruit and veg can aid in keeping it as healthy as possible.
- There are a lot of problems with older adults not consuming enough fiber and this can result in digestive problems including constipation.
- Without the correct nutrition, the body lacks energy and it will use its reserves for the most basic functions. However, this means that the body will quickly become tired and the person will struggle with fatigue and reduced alertness. This could be a contributing factor to falls or accidents.
- If proper nutrition is not achieved, this can cause slower healing wounds which may lead to secondary infections.
- With a lack of energy and health problems, the senior may experience chronic mood swings and emotional issues. There is also some suggestion that cognitive function may be affected although research into this is ongoing.
If a vulnerable person is not able to manage their nutrition alone, this could mean the need to go into an assisted care facility.
Government Food Assistance Programs
While food poverty is a very real problem in the United States, it is not one that is going ignored by the government. There are several programs that aim to provide help to those who are struggling to maintain proper nutrition.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
Assistance Program Overview
SNAP was once called Food Stamps but the program serves the same purpose; to provide nutrition assistance to low income families and individuals. While unemployment insurance is the most used federal program, SNAP falls not far behind. The program is completely funded by the federal government and each state will pay certain costs for administering the program to its residents.
Am I Eligible?
In order to take advantage of the SNAP program, you must first prove your eligibility. You must meet minimum income requirements although seniors are given more leeway on the amount of funds they are allowed to have in their account when applying. In addition, there are limits to what you can claim based on the size of your household.
You must apply to the state in which you intend to use the program and in which you are currently residing. Once your application is submitted, your claim will be processed and you will receive your funds backdated to the date you originally applied. The benefits are given on a preloaded card which can then be used to purchase groceries.
Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)
Assistance Program Overview
Fruits and vegetables form an essential part of a nutritional diet yet so many vulnerable adults struggle to obtain these. The SFMNP aims to provide low-income seniors with locally grown vegetables, fruits, and various other products including honey and herbs. Not only does this benefit the seniors using the program but it also goes towards developing new road-side stalls and farmers markets in the local areas boosting trade and the use of locally grown ingredients.
Am I Eligible?
In order to take part in this program, you must be over the age of 60. Your household income must not exceed more than 185% of the federal poverty guidelines for income. You may be asked to prove your eligibility and depending on the state you live in, proof of receiving another benefit such as SNAP will be sufficient.
Nutrition Services Incentive Program (NSIP)
Assistance Program Overview
The NSIP aims to supplement funding for food that is used in meals that are served under the Older Americans Act. The service aims to deliver nutritionally beneficial meals to older adults and those who are most in need. The meals are prepared and delivered directly to your home making this a good resource for those who are housebound.
Am I Eligible?
In order to qualify for this program, participants must be aged 60 or over and be eligible to receive services provided under the Older Americans Act. However, if you have a spouse or caregiver that is under 60, they may also be eligible to receive the meals alongside yourself.
Commodity Supplemental Food Programs (CSFP)
Assistance Program Overview
CSFP is a program that aims to improve the health of seniors through proper nutrition and this is done by increasing access to certain USDA foods. These foods are picked up at a food bank or delivered in a package to participants and may include things like fruits, beans, juices, and meats, among other things.
Am I Eligible?
This program is not available in all states so you will need to check your local availability. If your state does take part, you must be over the age of 60 to apply.
Non-Profit Food Assistance Programs
In addition to the vast number of government programs available, there are also many charitable organizations that offer food assistance to those in need.
Meals on Wheels
Meal on Wheels is a well-known organization that aims to provide seniors with a healthy and nutritionally balanced diet. There are currently more than 5000 programs running locally around the US and each will have its own resources and limits. On the Meal on Wheels website, you can perform a search to find your nearest program.
Not only does the organization provide nutrition, but it also provides an opportunity for seniors to have more social interaction. For those having a food delivery, a friendly face and a conversation can be the highlight of someone’s day. Furthermore, for more mobile seniors, Meals on Wheels has a variety of community centers for socializing.
The Salvation Army does a lot of work and one of their focuses lies in providing support and nutrition for the most vulnerable families and older adults. They run many food pantries all over the United States. What is most notable about these food pantries is that, for the most part, you will be able to choose which foods you would like to take rather than being given a pre-packed food parcel, meaning that your tastes and individual nutritional needs will be better met.
Feeding America Network
Feeding America is a nationwide network of food banks and pantries, with tens of thousands of locations around the country. Each year, the organization provides nutritional assistance to more than 40 million people; in 2020, they provided more than 5 billion meals to needy individuals struggling due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Not only do they provide food for those in need, but Feeding America also provides information for the public to educate them about hunger and food poverty. It also aims to reduce food waste.
Food Source Hotline
The Food Source Hotline is operated by Project Bread and aims to provide information over the telephone for people looking to find food assistance programs and support. The program is based in Massachusetts and operates on a toll-free number.
But by calling the service, you will receive much more than just directions to your nearest food bank. The organization will assist you in finding other programs that may benefit you such as fuel assistance, utility, and health. Their aim is to put you in touch with as many programs as possible and they may call other organizations on your behalf, should you need them to.
It can sometimes be difficult to know what benefits you can claim and whether you are eligible. Benefits Check Up will provide you with information on what you may be entitled to receive. There are as many as 2500 benefits programs across the USA, so knowing where to turn can feel dizzying.
Benefits Check Up can provide details on some of the most commonly used programs such as SNAP as well as local and state programs specifically aimed at seniors. In order to check what you may be entitled to, you will need to have some basic information to hand such as how long you have lived at your current address, your veteran status, employment history, and income.
USDA National Hunger Hotline
The USDA national hunger hotline is an essential tool for those looking for more detailed information on food assistance as well as various other social services. You can receive information around local, state and government food programs. The hotline can be accessed either by telephone or text message and is open from 7am – 10pm Monday to Friday.
Adults with Disabilities (AWD) Home Delivered Meal Program
For adults that are living with a disability, getting out of the house to purchase groceries can be a challenge.
However, having them delivered is an option and the AWD home delivered meal program is an excellent resource. It aims to provide food assistance to adults with a disability who have limited caregiver support who cannot purchase food or prepare a meal for themselves and who are unable to attend a meal site. Applicants must also be at risk of a health decline owing to their inability to provide themselves with correct nutrition. While this service is free, it is suggested that a donation is made to further fund the project.
Tips & Tricks to Save on Your Grocery Bills & Make Cooking Easier
While some of the programs that we have discussed are an excellent way to access support and donations where nutrition is concerned. There are also ways that you may be able to support yourself.
1. Batch Cook
If you are struggling to find the motivation to cook a meal for just yourself each day then it may be useful to cook in batches. You can prepare several meals and pop them in the freezer to simply defrost and reheat when you are ready to eat, saving you the time and effort to prepare a new meal each evening.
2. Use Coupons & Cashback Apps
In modern times, we are blessed to have such a wide array of coupon websites and apps such as SavingStar and Coupon Sherpa. These can provide you with coupons to save on your entire shop or certain groceries and can go a long way in saving money, be sure to check regularly for food coupons.
You might also consider using one of the many cashback apps like Fetch Rewards and Ibotta where you will receive cashback on certain items. In the long term, there is the potential to save hundreds or thousands of dollars.
3. Use Adaptive Kitchen Devices
For seniors or disabled adults who find cooking difficult because of dexterity, strength, or pain, using adaptive kitchen devices could be a viable answer to the problem. There are many options including ergonomically designed pots and pans, right-angled knives, and kettle tippers, among other things. These items can put less pressure on the joints meaning that cooking becomes less painful and more accessible.
4. Buy in Bulk
Getting out to do your grocery shopping could be problematic, but buying in bulk will reduce the number of times you need to do this. Wholesale companies like Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s are all ideal for getting the most for your money. Amazon is also a great way to buy in bulk without even having to leave your home. If you feel that you won’t use everything at once, you might split the cost with a friend or family member meaning you will save even more money.
5. Plan Meals Ahead
When you live alone, you may find that, at meal times, you struggle to decide what to cook; this is where a meal plan can come in handy. With a structured routine in place, you will know what you need to buy and how much time will be spent cooking, making the job far easier.
6. Prepare a Shopping List before Going Food Shopping
It can be easy to overspend in the grocery store, especially if you shop when you are hungry. For this reason, it is important to always make a list and stick to it. You will know in advance how much you are going to spend and there will be less temptation to spontaneously purchase things you don’t need. What’s more, there won’t be any nasty surprises at the checkout.
In line with the point above, it is essential that you always set a strict food budget. This should cover everything you need and, if you can afford it, some treats or extras, but you should never sway from the budget.
8. Buy Store Own Brands
Sticking to a budget may seem intimidating but if you can avoid buying branded items, it will be much easier. Store own brands often come in cheaper and the quality is just as good since many of these brands are made in the same factories as the branded products, simply with a different label.
9. Consider Using Meal Delivery Service
For some people, cooking can be too challenging but there are many meal delivery services that can provide you with healthy meals. You have the option to choose how many meals you would like delivered each week and, for the most part, the meals will require nothing more than being heated up. There are many organizations that provide this service and the food is almost always nutritious.
10. Buy Frozen and Canned Food
Food waste is a global problem but when you are trying to live on a budget, it can be the difference between saving and struggling. By purchasing longer life foods like frozen and canned goods, you will throw less out meaning you won’t need to replace things as often. You will still have fruit and vegetables but they will last much longer.
11. Use a Slow Cooker
For anyone who finds cooking a chore or too difficult, a slow cooker can make the process easier since there is no need for multiple pots or much preparation. You can put an entire meal into the slow cooker and have only one pot to clean when you are done. The meals are just as tasty but with minimal effort.
12. Avoid Prepared Foods
It can be tempting to purchase pre-prepared meals thinking that it will save you time. That may be true but these are typically much more expensive and will eat into your food budget. If you are able, and enjoy cooking, choosing fresh will be much more budget-friendly. Plus, you will always know exactly what is in the food as some prepared meals can be very high in salt and sugar content.