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Opinion

50 Years of Nourishment Beyond Food

The Older Americans Nutrition Act celebrates a milestone after its programs faced their most challenging period in history, and now look to the future of providing meals and connection

By Bob Blancato

"It is a lifeline for older adults. It goes beyond nutrition to serve as a human connection." "Extremely valuable in promoting healthy eating, socialization and preventing food insecurity." "The glue that keeps our most vulnerable connected to others." "A value can't be placed on providing meals to seniors."

Two older adults smiling outside on a sunny day. Next Avenue, Older Americans Act Nutrition Program 50 years, meals on wheels
105-year-old Rudy Calderon, left, and Bob Blancato, met recently for lunch in Los Angeles  |  Credit: Courtesy of Bob Blancato

These are some of the responses received from programs in Utah, Oklahoma, Indiana, Massachusetts and California to a survey by the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services (NANASP) asking nutrition program providers to describe the importance of the Older Americans Act nutrition programs. On March 22, 2022, this act will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

History of the Nutrition Program

The OAA Nutrition Program funds thousands of local organizations providing congregate and home-delivered meals such as meals at senior centers and Meals on Wheels programs. It is unique because of the broad, positive impact it has on the older adults it serves. It has rightfully been called "more than a meal."

It has rightfully been called "more than a meal."

In 1968, the U.S. Administration on Aging established a three-year demonstration program to test out the creation of a national senior nutrition program which would provide meals to older adults in a congregate setting. Following this pilot's successful launch, the OAA National Nutrition Program for the Elderly was then officially signed into law by Pres. Richard Nixon on March 22, 1972.

In an address to Congress on federal programs for older Americans given the next day, Nixon reiterated his support for the new program, saying, "The thought that any older citizens — after a lifetime of service to their communities and country — may suffer from hunger or malnutrition is intolerable."

As any good federal program should, the OAA Nutrition Program has evolved over time to meet changing needs and new realities. The first large change came in 1978, when a separate stream of funding for local home-delivered nutrition programs was added.

Most recently, the 2020 Older Americans Act reauthorization added two important provisions. The first expanded the purposes of the program to include reducing malnutrition. The second added first-time screening for malnutrition. This was necessitated by the growing problem of malnutrition among older adults. In fact, up to one out of two older adults is either at risk of becoming or is malnourished.

The OAA Nutrition Program has always enjoyed a high degree of bipartisan support over its 50-year history. Its champions include many current House and Senate Members including Representatives Rosa De Lauro from Conn., Suzanne Bonamici of Ore., and Tom Cole from Okla., and Senators Bernie Sanders of Vt., Patty Murray from Wash., Bob Casey from Pa., and Roy Blunt from Mo.

Impact of the Pandemic

The 50th anniversary comes at a time when the OAA nutrition program has endured the most challenging period in its history. The pandemic upended this program. Previously, roughly 2/3 of older adults in the OAA program were served in congregate settings. Within the first month of the pandemic, more than 95% were being provided with home-delivered meals or safely picking up a grab and go meal.

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Put another way, one day a nutrition program served 100 older adults in a congregate setting, the next day they might have to go to 100 separate locations to feed those same 100 older adults!

The resourceful staff and volunteers at these nutrition programs deserve our gratitude and support. As a further testament to the value and visibility of this program, it received $1.6 billion in emergency funding from the four emergency COVID bills passed by Congress between March 2020 and March 2021.

The 50th Anniversary Celebration

The Administration for Community Living under HHS (Health and Human Services) is the federal agency which administers the OAA Nutrition program. They are celebrating the 50th anniversary year-long with the theme Celebrate, Innovate, Educate.

We should allow the flexibility of hybrid nutrition programs with congregate meals for some and grab and go or home delivered meals for others.

The National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services conducted a survey of nutrition programs as part of the 50th anniversary. More than 25% of the survey respondents belonged to programs that were at least 50 years old. One program in South Bend, Ind. was 54 years old! 

Another important finding was the many programs serving individuals over the age of 100. I had the honor of meeting with one such participant in late February in Los Angeles. I had an outdoor lunch with Rudy Calderon, who at almost 106 years old was a regular at his congregate program until the pandemic, and currently receives meals at home.

Calderon's history and the history of his local Department of Aging are intertwined, as he volunteered for many years, heading to the congregate site almost daily, and even met his wife there who volunteered in the kitchen. His local program claims there's even video somewhere of him dancing at an event for older adults.

While we look back and celebrate 50 successful years for this program, we must now look to the future of this program. First, it must emerge from the pandemic and safely reopen as many congregate sites as possible. Part of what makes this program more than a meal is the socialization opportunities provided in congregate sites. It is vital to restore this to decrease the number of older adults who are socially isolated.

We should allow innovations developed by necessity in the pandemic to continue, including public private meal partnerships. We should allow the flexibility of hybrid nutrition programs with congregate meals for some and grab and go or home delivered meals for others. We must focus more on quality and choice in the meals to improve the offerings of medically tailored meals and culturally appropriate meals. 

An older adult sitting at a table with a meals on wheels kit in front of him. Next Avenue, Older Americans Act Nutrition Program 50 years, meals on wheels
105-year-old Rudy Calderon at lunch in Los Angeles  |  Credit: Bob Blancato

Finally, we should encourage more activities and celebrations in congregate nutrition programs since they are tailored to persons from 60 to over 100. The more we can offer to a diverse older adult community, the better we can serve those who need us most.

I wish to salute those key national aging associations who have contributed to the success of the OAA nutrition program by representing meal programs and senior centers across the US. These include The National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services, Meals on Wheels America, US AGING, The National Council on Aging, and ADvancing States. Also, throughout the 50 years, the staff at the Administration on Aging have administered the program with dedication and commitment.

However, the real heroes of this program are the dedicated staff and volunteers on the front lines every single day. Most importantly of all, we thank the older adults who participate in the program. By showing up, they confirm the value of the program to their daily lives.

As one program in Washington state eloquently put it in their survey response about OAA Nutrition programs, "How can you measure the value of living in your own home for as long as possible, being happier, healthier with food security and with loving connections? The value is beyond words."

Bob Blancato is national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, a national advocacy voice supporting elder justice in America, and president of Matz Blancato and Associates. He is a 2016 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging and winner of the American Society on Aging's 2020 Hall of Fame Award. Read More
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