Nutrition Assistance Programs Failing for Elderly
Nutrition is an important part of an older adult’s life, but federal nutrition guidelines do not address their varying nutritional needs, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study. The GAO is an independent nonpartisan agency that works for the U.S. Congress.
The report also stated that some foodservice providers said they lack funding to provide meals for the increasing number of seniors in their communities requesting food. In addition to funding, the providers find it difficult to prepare specific foods needed for older adults with chronic health conditions.
The GAO conducted the study to investigate:
- How federal nutrition guidelines address the needs of seniors
- How the guidelines are administered
- Difficulties food providers have in meeting the nutritional needs of older adults
The study involved 25 meal and food distribution sites in Arizona, Louisiana, Michigan, and Vermont. Urban and rural sites were chosen in the four states because of the high percentage of adults 60 years old and older and the poverty level in those areas.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the government departments that establish federal nutrition guidelines and sets requirements for meal programs, were also interviewed.
Older Adult Population Expected to Increase
With the senior population in the United States predicted to increase in the near future, the GAO recommended that HHS and USDA provide better oversight of meal programs and update the federal nutrition requirements for older adults.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 Americans is projected to be 65 years old and over in 2030. Census data shows many counties in Michigan, one of the four states in the GAO study, already have 30 percent of their population over the age of 65.
In addition, the number of Americans 85 years old and older is expected to nearly double by 2035. Surprisingly, the Census Bureau predicts that older adults will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history.
HHS to Update Federal Nutrition Guidelines
When the HHS updates the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” for 2025-2030, the GAO report recommends adding plans to identify “existing information gaps” on the specific nutritional needs of older adults.
For instance, the current federal nutritional guidelines for older adults are similar to the nutritional guidelines for children, the report said. Lynn Cavett, supervisor for the Michigan Department of Education’s child and adult food programs, said the only difference is food portions for older adults are larger, and yogurt is substituted for milk.
In its response to the GAO study, HHS officials said they plan to focus on older adults in the guidelines update but have not documented their plans yet to do so.
Some Older Adults Need Customized Meals
Providers participating in the GAO study said they face challenges in customizing meals to meet the dietary needs of some older adults with specific health problems.
Older adults typically have chronic conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. Research shows that certain diets and nutrients can prevent, delay, or help in managing chronic conditions.
For instance, low-sodium diets with protein or unsaturated fats can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of developing heart disease and help to manage it, according to federal dietary guidelines.
Adults with chronic health problems have different nutritional needs compared to adults who do not have chronic health conditions. But, providers say that customizing meals involves additional costs and preparation.
One provider told the GAO that its chefs do not have the skills needed to prepare specific meals recommended for older adults with chronic health problems. Another provider said its vendor charges more because of the additional work involved in tailoring meals for older adults.
Providers See Increased Demand for Food From Older Adults
The GAO survey found that increased demand for services makes it challenging to provide meals. State officials and providers in three of the four states said they have long waiting lists for home-delivered meals.
One provider in the survey said it had more than 12,000 seniors on a waiting list for its home-delivered meal program. Another provider said it serves new participants once others leave the program.
To meet the demand, providers in three of the states said they partner with grocery stores, local farmers, and other entities to get low- or no-cost food to serve more older adults. In two of the four states, some providers said they receive additional funding from a local property tax to provide nutrition and other services to older adults.
Because of challenges with providing meals to older adults, state officials and foodservice providers in the study believe more information from the HHS and USDA would be useful and could help them better address the varying nutritional needs of older adults.