While we worry about all our loved ones in the wake of COVID-19, our worries are compounded when it comes to older adults who face disproportionate risks of contracting and experiencing severe illness from COVID-19, including persons of color and those with underlying medical conditions.
As two leaders devoted to addressing food insecurity and malnutrition among older adults, we know all too well that even prior to the pandemic, millions of older adults were struggling to put food on the table.
Food-insecurity rates tend to be higher among older adults who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. And food insecurity drives harmful impacts on the health and well-being of older adults, exacerbating many chronic conditions. Further, one in two older adults is at risk for malnutrition. With job loss, closures of senior centers that housed meal sites, and escalating food prices, millions more older adults are now worried about putting food on the table, even with ongoing efforts to provide these older adults with home-delivered meals through their local Meals on Wheels programs.
COVID-19, food insecurity and malnutrition are a terrible trifecta that growing numbers of older adults face. Our networks of anti-hunger advocates and senior nutrition providers are inundated with calls from older adults worried about getting the food they need for their health and well-being. Further, social isolation and mental health issues, which can be prompted or intensified by the pandemic, are also known to increase older adults' malnutrition risk.
While we don’t have the medical solution to end COVID-19, we do have a powerful tool to mitigate the public health and economic crisis it has created. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) serves as the nation’s first line of defense against hunger. This proven program mostly serves the most vulnerable populations, including older adults.
The Senate and the administration need to act to limit growing food security by investing in SNAP and other nutrition programs that not only help people get the nourishment they need to weather the pandemic, but also stimulate the economy. Nearly 2,500 organizations from across the country signed on to a letter urging the Senate to boost SNAP benefits in the next coronavirus relief package. The letter asks for a 15 percent boost in the SNAP maximum benefit; an increase in the SNAP minimum monthly benefit from $16 to $30; and a suspension of SNAP time limits and rules changes that would cut SNAP eligibility and benefits.
SNAP is good for older adults: A considerable body of evidence shows that SNAP plays a role in improving food security, economic security, health, and dietary intake throughout the lifespan.
SNAP can help older adults minimize social contact: SNAP helps older adults have agency in deciding where they feel most safe shopping and when they wish to shop, and allows older adults to select the foods that are appropriate for their health and tastes. SNAP can be used at tens of thousands of locations across the nation where seniors would normally purchase their food and more states are implementing online SNAP purchases.ADVERTISEMENT
SNAP stimulates the economy: SNAP is a proven way to spur economic activity since people spend their SNAP benefits quickly. Each $1 of SNAP benefits during a downturn generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity. The infusion of SNAP dollars into the economy has positive impacts felt up and down the food chain — from farmers and food producers to grocery retailers, stock clerks, and local economies.
SNAP is an essential safety net for millions, but it is fraying because demand is growing and the federal government’s response is not. A tattered net provides no safety at all.
Our commitment must be to those in need who are not getting access to this critical program. It’s something we all should all agree on, and something we all must act on.
Bob Blancato is the executive director, National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs, and the national coordinator of the Defeat Malnutrition Today coalition. Luis Guardia is president of the Food Research & Action Center.