AARP celebrates turning 50 like no other, and so will we 

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We know AARP celebrates turning 50 like no other. However, today we are celebrating another occasion involving turning 50. March 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act nutrition programs. Many may not know this program by this name, but once we say it includes Meals on Wheels almost everyone gets it. 

President Richard Nixon signed into law the legislation creating this program in 1972, but its underlying statute—the Older Americans Act—was part of the “Great Society” of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson first laid out his plan for the “Great Society” with programs targeting food security, education, civil rights, and health care that would improve the lives of Americans. Including the nutrition program was motivated by the alarming findings of the 1965 National Food Study on Food Consumption and Dietary level conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It revealed that nearly 95 million Americans did not consume an adequate diet. 

The original nutrition program signed into law called for the provision of hot meals and other nutrition services to persons aged 60 and over and their spouses (regardless of age); and to offer them in a congregate setting or the home.  

The purposes of the program are to provide a meal, nutrition education, an opportunity for socialization, and reduce hunger and malnutrition among older adults. Over 50 years, tens of millions of seniors have benefitted from these lifesaving services and helped fulfill one of the great missions of the Older Americans Act: to maintain the independence and dignity of those it serves. 

The pandemic has presented this program with its greatest challenge ever. Overnight, the program had to undergo a full-scale conversion from one that provided more congregate than home delivered meals to one that provided over 90 percent home delivered meals. The remarkable staffs and volunteers who operate these programs across the country adapted to this sudden change, maintaining their current clients’ connections to meals, and stretching to meet an unprecedented increase in need from additional older adults requiring help. 

Congress has recognized this, and for the Older Americans Act nutrition programs provided $1.6 billion in emergency funds over the four pandemic bills between March 2020 and March 2021. This helped programs address two critical issues: the growing number of people needing services and the rising costs to provide them. 

However, just days before the 50th anniversary, Congress has let us down, threatening the success of these very programs. It has provided a miniscule $15 million (1.5 percent) increase in funding for Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 as part of the omnibus passed March 10. 

As our associations noted in a joint press statement issued the following day, the 1.5 percent increase “in no way reflects the reality on the ground for our programs” while “eight out of ten local Meals on Wheels programs are still providing more home delivered meals than they were prior to the pandemic.” 

Two of the top categories where inflation is running most rampant is in food and gasoline costs, both of which are vital to running nutrition programs. A home delivered meal is just that—it must be delivered—and more of them than any time in history. A 1.5 percent increase in funding against inflation increases of 16 percent for beef and 38 percent for gas is bad math. Our goal is to prevent our programs and the older adults they serve from falling off a service cliff when funding falls short.   

That’s why we urge a doubling of funding for the nutrition programs in FY 2023 and further urge that funding be included in any Supplemental Appropriations bill that might be considered for FY 2022.   

We are both heartened and appreciative of the strong bipartisan resolutions introduced in both the House and Senate in honor of the 50th anniversary. House Resolution 993 was authored by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) with Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y,), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.) as coauthors. It has garnered more than 58 co-sponsors. Senate Resolution 550 is the joint product of Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Aging Committee. Both resolutions in their titles recognize the value of the nutrition programs and quoting further from the Senate resolution and their role “in addressing hunger, malnutrition, food insecurity and social or geographic isolation and improving the health and quality of life for millions of older individuals in the United States each year.” 

We hope this bipartisan and bicameral support can be followed by the same support for the increased funding we urge for FY 2023. 

On this occasion we also salute the work and support of other national aging organizations including US Aging, Advancing States, the National Council on Aging and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Also ,the dedicated staff from the Administration on Aging who have administered this program so successfully over the 50 years. 

The ‘reward’ for a program which has proven so successful for five decades should not be fearing its future existence. Instead, it should be rewarded with adequate funding as an investment to help curb senior hunger, food insecurity, malnutrition, and isolation. That is what it has earned and deserves. 

Bob Blancato is executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs (NANASP) and Ellie Hollander is president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America. 

Tags Bob Casey Elise Stefanik John Katko Suzanne Bonamici Ted Deutch Tim Scott

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