SNAP Benefits Being Slashed

In March we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of National Nutrition Month. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics designated this month in 1973 to encourage the public to learn about making healthy food choices. Yet unfortunately this March more than 40 million Americans are facing deep cuts in their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, as benefits return to pre-pandemic levels. Those who receive the minimum benefit—many of them older adults living alone—will see their monthly food assistance fall from $281 to $23. Here’s what this means for older Americans, other federal health and nutrition programs that can be leveraged, and what more needs to be done.

The Cost of Reduced SNAP Benefits and Opportunities for Improvement

Food-insecure older adults are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions, have lower nutrient intake, and be at greater risk of falls. Food insecurity also is a risk factor for malnutrition. One in two older adults are malnourished or are at risk of being malnourished. This leads to longer hospital stays and higher health costs. Access to healthy foods that are nutrient dense are necessary to decrease malnutrition risk, but these foods can often be out of reach for older adults on a fixed income, especially once you factor in high inflation rates and reduced SNAP benefits.

Ultimately, food choices become limited to those that can be purchased cheaply, which are often more highly processed foods with lower nutritional value. Research on an older adult population in Georgia found pandemic-level SNAP benefits had double the impact on reducing food insecurity in older adults compared to lower, pre-pandemic benefits (4.7% reduction from 2.1%).

‘Meeting older adults’ needs can require participating in multiple programs.’

The September 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which committed to the dual goals of ending hunger and improving nutrition in our nation by 2030, called for expanding incentives for fruits and vegetables in SNAP and making it easier to apply for and use SNAP benefits. The USDA recently expanded produce prescription programs and other nutrition incentive programs in the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP), to encourage individuals to eat more healthfully by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables. With regulatory changes, more retailers are now able to accept online ordering for SNAP, which can help improve access.

Yet about three out of five older adults who qualify to receive SNAP are not enrolled—an estimated 5 million people. It’s necessary to reach these older adults where they are to increase enrollment. Research by the National Council on Aging offers many ideas: partner with organizations that reach older adults like food banks and those providing tax preparation for low-income residents, offer enrollment assistance to a variety of programs including SNAP, and reframe messaging around SNAP benefits to demonstrate its value and reduce stigmas.

Leveraging Other Federal Health and Nutrition Programs and Community Resources

Recognizing the importance of the social determinants of health, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently started to approve test programs allowing Medicaid to reimburse for nonmedical needs. Arkansas Medicaid will cover health-related social needs, which include nutrition counseling and healthy-meal preparation. Oregon’s pilot will cover short-term food assistance, cooking and nutrition classes, and medically tailored meals, which provide meals tailored to meet the needs of individuals living with chronic disease. North Carolinians on Medicaid will be able to access fruit and vegetable prescriptions and medically tailored home-delivered meals. Encouraging people to make good, healthy choices is expected to deliver savings by reducing medical visits, the need for medication, or by helping to control serious illness.

Other federal programs also help meet older adult nutrition needs. Specifically, Older Americans Act (OAA) nutrition programs, such as Meals on Wheels and congregate meals, can provide food and socialization and help screen for nutrition risk in those ages 60 and older. Local OAA nutrition program providers can be found using the Eldercare Locator Tool. In addition, low-income older adults can access the Senior Farmers Market program, which offers fresh produce or the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which offers a monthly box of healthy foods. Meeting older adults’ needs can require participating in multiple programs. In Arizona, older adults now receiving the new minimum of $23/month in SNAP benefits plus meals from Meals on Wheels have stated they can no longer afford groceries appropriate for their health and diet restrictions.

Beyond governmental programs, hospitals and local organizations (like food banks) have started their own produce prescription programs and food pharmacies to address barriers to accessing healthy food. As these programs grow, they will need exposure and support from organizations and their communities to increase enrollment and participation.

Your Help and Advocacy Needed

This year the farm bill, of which nearly 80% of its funding goes toward nutrition programs, will be reauthorized for another five years. This process allows updates and changes to nutrition programs and determines funding for government nutrition programs including SNAP, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, and GusNIP. Beneficial changes could be made to SNAP during this process, like stricter stocking standards for retailers to increase availability of healthy foods, further investment in demonstration projects, integrating SNAP benefit applications with other benefit programs applications, and authorizing every state to include standard medical deductions in calculating eligibility for older adults.

At the same time as SNAP funding levels are debated, older adults in particular would benefit from increased minimum benefit levels. It is essential to strengthen and protect SNAP. SNAP is a safety net program to help our older adults and cutting it will leave older adults struggling to access nutritious food. Share your story and find other ways to spread the news at Food Research and Action Center’s SNAP advocacy website.

Bob Blancato is the national coordinator of Defeat Malnutrition Today and the executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs in Washington, DC. Mary Beals-Luedtka is the Northern Arizona Council of Governments Aging Director, and immediate past chair of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs.