Leaving No Older Adult Hungry During the Pandemic

Even before COVID-19, older adults were no strangers to hunger and isolation. Our nation’s rapidly aging population meant more and more older adults at risk of these harmful conditions every day. Nearly 9.7 million elders were struggling with hunger, one in four lived alone, and one in four felt significantly lonely.

And then, COVID-19 hit.

Right from the start, shelter-in-place orders were enacted in communities across the country to keep those at highest risk—including older adults—as safe as possible. Though designed with public health and safety in mind, these measures also created a rapid increase in the number of older adults who practically overnight found themselves homebound and alone, cut off from their regular support systems.

A Groundswell of Need Across the Nation

As more older adults began physically isolating at home to stay safe, they encountered new barriers to accessing adequate nutrition and remaining socially connected. Food insecurity became a very real threat, on top of the dangers from COVID-19. Older adults who had previously needed no assistance, flocked to senior nutrition providers for help, coming to rely upon home-delivered meals as their primary source of food and some social connection.

In just the first few weeks, nearly all local Meals on Wheels programs experienced dramatic increases in demand for services, with four in five reporting that new client requests had at least doubled. Programs stretched thin resources to serve 56 percent more meals per week, while also reporting that waiting lists—forced by limited capacity and resources before COVID-19—continued to grow by 26 percent.

Three months in, as the pandemic progressed, local programs scaled up further to serve an average of 77 percent more meals and 47 percent more older adults. Now, nine months in, programs are still seeing an increased demand for meals, and nearly all programs’ operating costs are climbing.

Pivoting on a Dime

Meals on Wheels programs have long been driven by their mission of ensuring no older adult is ever left hungry or isolated. While the pandemic has not changed this, it has altered the ways in which Meals on Wheels safely reaches vulnerable individuals and has forced each program  to scale its capacity. Programs have had to:

  • Purchase freezers, refrigerators and packaging to enable a transition from fresh meals to frozen food;

  • Shift group dining at senior centers to “grab-and-go” meal packs, or move clients onto expanded home-delivery routes;
  • Expand their food production and storage capacity—sometimes through partnerships—and often deliver multiple meals to ensure continued access in the event of a service interruption;
  • Engage new volunteers or shift to additional paid staff to protect hundreds of thousands of older volunteers who were at risk;
  • Expand physically distanced meal delivery and socialization options, including telephone social and wellness check-ins;
  • Secure different types of refrigerated vehicles to adjust to the need to keep meals at the right temperature to accommodate more frozen meals delivered over longer delivery routes.

Meals on Wheels programs across the country found creative solutions that quickly and safely ramped up food delivery to meet the rapid upswing in demand and combat food insecurity among older adults in their communities at their time of greatest need.

However, it is uncertain how long local programs can keep this going.

Challenges to Sustainability

Nearly all local Meals on Wheels programs made the operational changes to successfully adapt to the demands of COVID-19, and it placed them under great financial strain and uncertainty. As they sought to feed more older adults than ever before, costs rose for nearly all (97 percent) of them. Adding that to supply chain and work force disruptions, higher meal production costs, and revenue decreases from diminished or cancelled fundraising efforts, it is now more expensive and challenging than ever to serve our nation’s older adults. Programs expect that it may take up to three years to recoup their financial losses.

Demand for these services had long surpassed the capacity and resources needed, well before COVID-19. The pandemic has severely exacerbated the situation, and many programs are concerned about their ability to continue feeding all the older adults seeking assistance through the remainder of the pandemic and beyond.

However, it is uncertain how long local programs can keep this going.

The national Meals on Wheels network has provided more than 18 million additional meals and served more than 1 million new clients in the face of the pandemic so far. The continued demand is still nearly 40 percent above pre-pandemic levels and programs expect many of the newly added clients will continue to need services moving forward. This suggests that even with the encouraging vaccine news, more older adults will require food assistance for the foreseeable future. More must be done to mitigate future food insecurity among older adults or else the programs that serve them could be in for a long and uncertain time ahead.

Lucy Theilheimer, MA, is chief strategy and impact officer for Meals on Wheels America in Arlington, Va.