Amidst a deepening recession and a frigid Minnesota winter, seniors throughout the state have become increasingly dependent on food assistance programs to ensure food security and proper nutrition. However, given the state’s current financial woes, the future of these programs is far from certain.
Food assistance programs play a vital role for Minnesota’s seniors. For one, they promote food-security, ensuring that seniors do not go hungry. However, they often play a more subtle role as well, by ensuring that seniors receive proper nutrition.
This is especially important because as seniors get older, they face a variety of changing dietary needs that make them particularly vulnerable to malnutrition. For instance, to maintain bone strength, seniors need to increase their calcium and vitamin D intake. Similarly, more iron is needed to battle anemia, and more fiber is needed to combat constipation. Meanwhile, energy requirements decrease, so seniors are challenged with the tricky problem of acquiring these increased nutrients while decreasing their food intake.
Seniors face many other difficulties that prevent them from receiving adequate nutrition. These include: diminished transportation possibilities, reduced appetite and other natural changes in eating habits, health-related restrictions on certain foods, and an increased difficulty in preparing foods.
To combat these problems, food assistance programs often provide meal options directly suited for seniors. For example, the non-profit organization, Metro Meals on Wheels, provides seniors with nutritious meals that are between 700 and 800 calories, and high in vitamin content. Additional meal options include low sodium meals, diabetic meals, and easy to chew meals. They have also recently expanded their options to better suit Minnesota’s diversity, adding options such as Hmong, kosher, and Southeast Asian meals.
The importance of food assistance programs has recently increased due to the current economic environment. Rising health care costs and a deepening recession are leaving seniors with less income for personal consumption. Without food assistance, this often means cutting back on meals or cutting back on meal quality.
Fortunately, a wide assortment of programs exist to ensure that Minnesota seniors, who make up 12 percent of the state’s population, are both food-secure and receiving a balanced and nutritious diet. Homebound seniors can have food delivered directly to their door through federal programs such as the Elderly Nutrition Program and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, or through a variety of non-profits such as Meals on Wheels.
For cash-strapped seniors who are not homebound, there are even more options to fight hunger. Over 17,000 Minnesota seniors qualify for food stamps, which help defray costs while injecting new money into the local economy. Minnesota also has a wide assortment of food shelves, soup kitchens, and emergency feeding centers that provide food not only to seniors, but to all age groups.
The strength of food assistance programs throughout the state has allowed Minnesota to traditionally rank quite well in terms of senior hunger. However, these programs face a very precarious future.
Previously burdened by high food and gas prices, senior nutrition programs now face a new problem: rapidly-increasing demand coupled with declining revenues. Tight budgets in this business are nothing new, but the current state of affairs is sounding the alarm.
“Demand has risen by about 25% at food shelves since 2007,” says Ted Evans, communications coordinator at Minnesota’s Emergency Foodshelf Network.
This has stretched their supply of food, and for their Mobile Foodshelf program, which delivers food to seniors at subsidized housing complexes, meaning one less meal in each distribution package.
For Metro Meals on Wheels, which operated at a loss in 2008, a decrease in donations has made it difficult to meet rising demand, at times forcing the group to turn people away.
“We’re looking forward to 2009 being different,” says Patrick Rowan, executive director of Metro Meals of Wheels. “If it’s not different in the first 6 weeks or so, we’re going to have to make some drastic changes in the way we do business.”
One issue of concern has been finding reliable sources of funding. Although most of the state and federal funding for Metro Meals on Wheels has been committed for 2009, future funding is uncertain. “About 68% of our support comes from public dollars,” says Rowan. “We are worried we could see cuts of up to 50% [for 2010].” Of additional concern is the thought that other state programs might vanish, thereby exacerbating the strain on already limited resources.
Other groups remain cautious of the future as well. “Right now things are looking good,” says Nowell Searle, vice president of external relations at Second Harvest Heartland. However, he is quick to note that “foundations and corporations are reprioritizing their giving, so next year may really tell the story.”
The growth of Minnesota’s senior population is expected to add to the problem. Tom Gillaspy, the State Demographer, estimates that the 65+ population will increase from 12 percent of the total population, to almost 21 percent by 2030. Senior programs are bracing for this further increase in demand as much as they can. “We anticipate an increase in demand of 40% over the next five years,” says Rowan, adding, “It’s one of our biggest areas of focus.”
In the meantime, these groups continue to provide their services to seniors. “We can’t provide all the food that’s needed, but all the food that we provide is needed,” says Nowell Searle.
As the current recession continues to eat away at senior food security, state policymakers need to ensure that now, more than ever, food assistance programs are able to provide the basic assistance that seniors deserve.