When I joined Senior Community Centers 17 years ago, our nutritional program provided a nutritious lunch each day, Monday through Friday, to San Diego’s low-income seniors. For many, it was their only meal of the day. I observed seniors saving the apple or banana from their tray to eat for dinner.
Noticing this behavior, I began to investigate and had conversations with the seniors who relied on our services. One such discussion I had was with an 87-year-old named John. I asked him if he ever got hungry, and he said, “No, I just drink lots of water.” It became crystal clear that we needed to add a breakfast meal and provide food each day of the year to keep these seniors healthy and independent.
One of the key reasons we could expand our services was because of the financial support of the Older Americans Act’s Nutritional Program, which focuses on reducing hunger and food insecurity among older adults. This federal nutrition program also aims to promote the health and well-being of older individuals and delay adverse health conditions through access to nutrition and other disease prevention and health promotion services.
March 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the Nutritional Program. More than 8 billion meals have been served to seniors across the country since 1972. In 2010 alone, service providers and community organizations across the country provided more than 240 million meals to nearly 2.5 million older adults to help them maintain their health. And in San Diego, Senior Community Centers served more than 500,000 meals in 2011 alone at our dining sites and through the residential meal delivery program.
Hunger does not discriminate — it affects every race, ethnic background and socioeconomic level. In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture found that about 4.6 million older adults experienced some form of food insecurity. In 2010, a survey of program participants by the U.S. Administration on Aging found 12 percent of home-delivered meals recipients and 6 percent of congregate meal participants had to choose between buying food and paying for their rent or utilities. Eliminating hunger among seniors in the United States is critical.
In San Diego, recent statistics show 40 percent of seniors lack adequate funding for food, shelter and transportation. Yet the outdated, official poverty measure identifies only 8 percent of San Diego seniors in need of help.
There is little debate about the link between proper nutrition and overall health. Better health allows seniors to remain independent longer. For seniors without personal resources, independence means that the tremendous financial burden of institutionalization and medical services are not transferred to their families or taxpayers.
The Older Americans Act’s Nutritional Program gives seniors across the nation access to healthy meals and ensures they will live their lives with dignity in challenging economic times. For that, I am grateful. But it is important to stay vigilant and encourage our elected officials and community leaders to maintain funding support services for seniors here in San Diego and across the nation.