We can’t throw older adults over a hunger cliff
It couldn’t be more ironic and cruel that over 40 million Americans are facing deep cuts in their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at the beginning of March, which is National Nutrition Month. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics designated this month 50 years ago to invite the public to learn about making healthy food choices.
SNAP was expanded during the pandemic-related public health emergency. The omnibus funding bill Congress passed in December 2022 ends these pandemic-level SNAP payments starting in March. States have already begun this process, with Arizona, Florida, and Mississippi among those already ending pandemic-related payments. Those hardest hit by these cuts will be the over 4.8 million older adults that receive SNAP benefits. Those who are receiving the minimum benefit, many of whom are older adults living alone, will see monthly food assistance fall from $281 to $23.
How can older adults make healthy food choices with so much less money? Research shows that fewer older adults skipped meals when receiving increased SNAP benefits and were able to afford other basic needs crucial for their health and independence, such as medications, rent and utilities.
For instance, Jane, who is 89 and in poor health due to cancer, told a benefits enrollment specialist, “The food stamps I get help me buy the healthy foods I need to keep my strength up. I really rely on them to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Further, the private sector isn’t nearly as cost-effective as SNAP. For every meal that a food bank or food pantry provides, SNAP can provide nine. SNAP cuts will stretch community-based organizations past their limits.
This unconscionable situation comes directly after the September 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which committed to the dual goals of ending hunger and improving nutrition in our nation by 2030.
Decreasing SNAP benefits does not get us there; and, it will also certainly increase cases of malnutrition in our nation. One in two older adults are malnourished or are at risk of being malnourished. This leads to longer hospital stays and higher health costs. Healthy foods high in micronutrients are necessary to decrease malnutrition risk, but these foods are increasingly out of reach with the double impacts of high inflation and reduced SNAP benefits. Ultimately, food choices become limited to those that can be purchased cheaply, which usually means highly processed foods with poor nutritional value. The White House conference called for expanding incentives for fruits and vegetables in SNAP, but this is only more difficult with smaller benefits.
Instead, 2023 could be the year that hunger increases when this key program to combat hunger is slashed. Research in Georgia found pandemic-level SNAP benefits had double the impact on reducing food insecurity in older adults as compared to the lower, pre-pandemic benefits (4.7 percent reduction from 2.1 percent). Food-insecure older adults are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions, have lower nutrient intake, and be at greater risk of falls.
Another study found that nutrition benefits may slow age-related cognitive decline. What an incredible finding. With just a few extra dollars, we can help older adults stay healthier and independent longer.
The upcoming debate to renew the farm bill is an opportunity to strengthen and protect SNAP and other federal initiatives to combat hunger and support nutrition and health across the lifespan. About three out of five seniors who qualify to receive SNAP are not enrolled—an estimated 5 million people in all. The farm bill should improve outreach efforts and simplify applications and certifications to make it easy for eligible people to enroll. Most of those are older adults, individuals with disabilities and other individuals with fixed, low incomes. The farm bill should also increase minimum benefits and automatically account for costs such as medical expenses. Most importantly, now is not the time for SNAP and other income support programs to be sacrificed on the altar of budget deals.
The decision by Congress to raise SNAP benefits was the absolute right thing to do during the pandemic. Though the impact of the pandemic has waned, it is still a real and present danger to older adults who continue to have a higher risk of infection, hospitalization and death. Maintaining SNAP benefits both now and in the future is especially important. SNAP is a safety net program to help our nation’s seniors, their families and their communities in hard times. We should not shred it while need remains.
Bob Blancato is the executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs (NANASP). Ramsey Alwin is the president and CEO of the National Council on Aging.
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