Finding Free Meals for Seniors

“Finding Free Meals for Seniors” was written by Gabrielle McPherson, MS, RDN, LDN and edited/updated by Aly Bouzek, MS, RDN.

Too many older adults struggle with hunger and food access. Finances are a real issue in this population. In this post, we break down issues with food insecurity AND how you can help find free meals for seniors. 

What is Food Insecurity?

In its simplest form, food insecurity is not having the money to get the foods you need. No money = no food = hunger. It affects far too many people for a variety of reasons. 

Food Insecurity

Food Insecurity Finding Free Meals for Seniors

It is heart-wrenching to know that for many, it’s really hard to get one of our most basic physiological needs as human beings – food.

Food is necessary for life.

When there is trouble accessing it, our health is negatively impacted in many ways.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” (1)

Another way to define food insecurity is: when a lack of money and/or other resources causes a disruption in eating patterns or food intake. (2)

How Many People Does Food Insecurity Affect?

In both 2019 and 2020, 13.8 million people across the United States were reported to be food insecure. (3) Fortunately, the prevalence of food insecurity has gone down from 11.1% in 2018 to 10.5% in 2019 and 2020. (3)

What Causes Food Insecurity?

There are many causes of food insecurity. Low socioeconomic status is most commonly associated with food insecurity.

Other causes, or triggers, of food insecurity, are income instability, household changes, physical and mental health decline, and job loss. (4)

Food Insecurity and Older Adults

As you can see, food insecurity is a big issue. Now let’s dig deep into how this impacts older adults.

The Senior Population is Growing

As of 2020, there are more than 55.6 million adults ages 65 and older. (5) By 2030, it’s expected that 73.1 million (or 1 in 5 people) will fall in this age group. 

There is an increased prevalence of depression, excessive drinking, frequently mental distress, and suicide in this population compared to 11 years ago (13 years ago for suicide). (5

These are concerns that can happen if someone is struggling with food insecurity.

Food Insecurity for Seniors

Senior with No Food

Causes of food insecurity specific to older adults are often: 

  • Limited income
  • Disability
  • Medical conditions
  • Functional limitations

Having limited food access can put older adults at risk for malnutrition, chronic disease, and worsening of chronic disease.

Additionally, food insecure older adults have higher chances of emergency room visits, office visits, and inpatient hospital stays compared to food secure older adults. (6)

Food insecurity affects 5.5 million older adults in America today and 9.5 million are somewhat affected by food insecurity and are at risk for hunger. (7)

How do Older Adults Cope with Food Insecurity?

How to Pay for Food

When financial resources are limited and the number of medical bills and prescriptions accrue, older adults make sacrifices to make ends meet.

It was reported in 2015 that older adult households “made trade-offs” between food and paying for (8):

  • Medical care (63%)
  • Utilities (60%)
  • Transportation (58%)
  • Housing (49%)

Food insecurity combined with a lack of resources can cause older adults to purchase cheap and highly processed foods that are prone to being high in calories, fat, and sugar. These foods may also lack nutrients that support bone health, immunity, and overall health.

Feeding America reported that 77% of older adults in their program buy the cheapest food even if it isn’t a good nutrition source. (9) The older adults in their program also report other coping strategies including (9):

  • Receiving help from loved ones (46%)
  • Watering down food and beverages (38%)
  • Selling valuables (29%)
  • Growing food at home or in a community garden (24%)

Barriers to Food Access for Older Adults

Let’s dig deeper into what is causing food insecurity in older adults. Breaking down barriers to food access is the key to helping older adults get the foods they need.

Mobility and Transportation Issues

Access to food can be limited for older adults because of issues with mobility. In older age, it’s more difficult to move around especially when there is an existing physical condition that may create restricted movement. 

It can be too physically taxing to leave home and get to the grocery store. Physical limitations and medical conditions can isolate older adults and limit social exposure.

A lack of reliable transportation or being unable to drive are both real barriers. This can limit access to farmer’s markets and grocery stores that may be far away. Local convenience stores, drug stores, and gas stations nearby can offer a short distance to travel. 

However, they often don’t carry fresh produce or other nutrient-rich foods to support good health and chronic disease management.

Social Isolation and Lack of Information

Senior Isolation

Transportation challenges can result in social isolation.

Social isolation may increase mortality and can have a negative impact on both mental and physical health. (10)

Statistics show that 1 in 4 older adults live alone and 1 in 5 older adults feel lonely. (7

Social isolation can keep an older adult uninformed or misinformed about their eligibility for and knowledge of food assistance opportunities.

Having social support can not only help older adult’s form meaningful relationships and boost their mental health with activities, but it can also encourage a healthy lifestyle and help older adults eat well.

Need for Free Meals for Seniors: Risks of Not Having Enough Food

Having enough food is a basic human need. It can lead to so many issues that impact overall health and in turn, quality of life.

Malnutrition

Older adults who are food insecure have low intakes of calories, and key nutrients like protein, vitamins A, C, B6, thiamin, magnesium, and iron. 

Low protein intake and aging can result in loss of muscle and strength. Sarcopenia can also result from poor protein intake and can cause falls and hip fractures.

Poor nutrient intake can leave older adults at risk for being more susceptible to sickness, and have a reduced ability to get over illness and infections. It can also contribute to unintended weight loss in older adults.

Chronic Diseases

Food insecure older adults are (11): 

  • 60% more likely to have a heart attack or congestive heart failure
  • 50% more likely to have diabetes
  • 30% more likely to have at least one activity of daily living impacted

Improper food access has the potential to deteriorate health status. 

Consuming nutrient-poor foods can lead to all kinds of health issues including:

  • Abnormal cholesterol
  • Poor control of blood glucose levels
  • High blood pressure

Mental Health

Mental Health and Free Meals for Seniors

Mental impacts of food insecurity are unfortunately often overlooked.

Older adults facing food insecurity are 3 times more likely to have depression. (11)

An ugly cycle of food insecurity, consuming poor-quality foods, exacerbation of pre-existing health issues, loneliness, and other barriers can negatively affect mental health issues.

Quality of Life

As stated previously, improper access to foods can pose threats to every aspect of life including physical, emotional, mental, social, and economic well-being. Ultimately, negatively impacting quality of life.

Older adults deserve to have the VERY best quality of life!

Finding Free Meals for Seniors

There are available resources that can enhance the quality of life for older adults suffering from food insecurity. Below, we will discuss the available resources that provide food and free meals for seniors.

Free Meals for Seniors: Nutrition Programs

Congregate Meal Sites

  • What is it?
    • Congregate Meals is a grant-based program providing healthy meals, nutrition services, and social engagement opportunities in congregate settings.
  • Who is eligible?
    • Older adults ages 60 and older with great economic and social needs.

Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)

  • What is it?  
    • SFMNP is a program that provides coupons to be exchanged for locally grown produce, herbs, and honey at farmer’s markets and other community stands.
  •  Who is eligible?
    • Older adults ages 60 and older with household incomes no more than 185% of the poverty level

Meals on Wheels 

  • What is it?  
  •  Who is eligible?
    • Home-bound, frail, and/or isolated older adults ages 60 and older.

Mom’s Meals

  • What is it?
    • Mom’s Meals is a home-delivered meal service that provides free meals to seniors in all 50 US states. 
  • Who is eligible?
    • Seniors who are already covered by Medicare or Medicaid, or who qualify for government-funded nutrition programs. 

Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)

  • What is it?  
    • CACFP is a federal program that provides nutritious meals and snacks to adult daycares.
  •  Who is eligible?
    • Older adults ages 60 and older who attend adult daycares that participate in this program.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)

  • What is it?  
    • CSFP is a program that provides healthy food packages on a monthly basis. 
  •  Who is eligible?
    • Older adults ages 60 and older who are at or below 130% of the poverty level.

Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)

  • What is it?  
    • TEFAP is a federal program that provides emergency food assistance to help supplement diets of low-income individuals.
  •  Who is eligible?
    • Elderly individuals who meet state specific income guidelines.

Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE)

  • What is it?  
    • PACE is a Medicare and Medicaid program that provides medical and social needs including nutrition counseling and meals.
  •  Who is eligible?
    • Older adults age 55 and older who live in the service area of a PACE organization. 
    • Must have a need for a nursing home level of care (as certified by state).
    • Be able to live safely in the community with help from PACE.

Humana Well Dine Prepared Meals Food Assistance Program

  • What is it?  
  •  Who is eligible?
    • Humana insurance carriers. Hopefully more insurance carriers will begin offering such services. (Check out your insurance policy to see if this is covered!)

Free Meals for Seniors: Community Food Assistance

Community Food Assistance

Community food assistance can be found locally through food banks, food pantries, mobile markets, churches, community centers, and non-profit organizations. 

Local grocery stores may offer a small discount for older adults.

Restaurants may also offer specials for older adults.

Do some research in your community to see what is available! Ask your health care team, dietitian, social worker, community worker, or even friends.

Free Meals for Seniors: Eldercare Locator

Eldercare Locator is an amazing resource helps connect people to the resources available for older adults in YOUR community. 

Finding Free Meals for Seniors: Food Banks Near You

Feeding America has a great resource for finding food banks near you. Simply enter your zip code and you’ll be closer to finding free meals for seniors. 

How Caregivers Can Help Find Meals for Seniors

Many of you reading are caregivers to an older adult. Thank you. You can further help the older adults in your life by connecting them to the resources available in their community.

Let’s go over a few additional ways you can help.

Grocery Shopping and Taking Grocery Orders

You can help your loved one obtain access to food in many ways that were not possible a decade ago. Going grocery shopping for your loved one can be a great help, especially if you’re coupon savvy.

You can also learn more about how to spend less on groceries, budget friendly recipes, and single ingredient foods to multiply your grocery list. This way you can get more food with less money!

This may not always be feasible so another option could be arranging for a personal shopper to deliver groceries to your loved one’s home through a grocery delivery service such as Instacart or Shipt

Assist with Applications and Gathering of Important Documents

This information can be confusing. An older adult may get “lost in the weeds” of food assistance applications. They may also be uncomfortable with using certain modes of technology.

Helping them gather all of the necessary documents needed while assisting with submitting the completed paperwork can be very helpful. 

According to the National Council on Aging, only 48% of older adults who are eligible for SNAP are participating. (12)

Also, you can provide support in reassuring them that they DO deserve these benefits and we want to help them get the food they need to stay healthy and at home. 

Sometimes there are barriers to accepting help and stigma associated with getting assistance.

Assist with Meal Preparation or Food Delivery

Help your loved one by doing some cooking for them and keeping meals frozen so they are easy to reheat. If you’re looking for a great gift for an older adult, consider giving them a meal delivery service. This can easily be set up online.

Learn more from our article on Top Senior Meal Deliveries.

Finding Free Meals for Seniors Wrap Up

This was a lot of good information! Hopefully you now see how many resources there actually are to get food and free meals for seniors. No older adult should go hungry. Ever. 

We can help them bridge the gap in getting the resources they need to get food in their stomachs.

Thank you for caring for older adults. Thank you for helping them get access to food and free meals for seniors.

Free Meals for Seniors Infographic

Free Meals for Seniors

References:

  1. Definitions of Food Security. USDA Economic Research Service. www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/definitions-of-food-security.aspx#ranges.
  2. Nord M, Andrews M, Carlson S. Household Food Security in the United States, 2005. www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/45655/29206_err29_002.pdf?v=41334
  3. Key Statistics & Graphics. USDA Economic Research Service. www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx#trends
  4. Gundersen C and Ziliak J. “Childhood Food Insecurity in the US: Trends, Causes, and Policy Options.” Aspen Institute, 2014. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/files/content/docs/ee/N.Childhood_Food_Insecurity_in_the_U.S..pdf
  5. Senior Report 2019. America’s Health Rankings. https://assets.americashealthrankings.org/app/uploads/ahr-senior-report_2019_final.pdf
  6. Bhargava V & Lee S. Food insecurity and health care utilization among older adults in the United States. J Nutr Gerontol Geriatr. 2016;35(3):177-192. doi:10.1080/21551197.2016.1200334.
  7. The Escalating Problem of Senior Hunger and Isolation. Meals On Wheels of America. www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org/docs/default-source/fact-sheets/2019/2019-national/mowa2019factsheets_issue_final.pdf?sfvrsn=b92bb93b_2
  8. Baby Boomers and Beyond: Facing Hunger after Fifty. Feeding America. www.feedingamerica.org/research/senior-hunger-research/facing-hunger-after-fifty
  9. DelVicchio Dys, T, et al. “Baby Boomers and Beyond: Facing Hunger after Fifty w.” Feeding America, 2015. www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/research/senior-hunger-research/baby-boomers-executive-summary.pdf
  10. Steptoe, A., et al. Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2013;110(15):5797-5801. doi:10.1073/pnas.1219686110. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3625264/
  11. Lloyd, Jean. “Hunger in Older Adults.” Meals On Wheels America, Feb. 2017. www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org/docs/default-source/research/hungerinolderadults-fullreport-feb2017.pdf
  12. “Get the Facts on SNAP and Senior Hunger.” National Council on Aging. Feb 2021. www.ncoa.org/news/resources-for-reporters/get-the-facts/senior-hunger-facts/

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top