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Nutrition Assistance for Older Americans

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Nutrition assistance programs play a vital role in promoting the well-being and independence of older Americans. This fact sheet highlights the various nutrition assistance programs available to older adults and the funding sources that support these programs.


Older persons face special obstacles in maintaining an optimal diet. As individuals age, their caloric needs decline, but their need for nutrients does not. Therefore, older persons must consume foods that are nutrient-rich. Life changes such as loss of a spouse can reduce appetite, as can a diminished sense of taste or smell. Frailty can make it difficult to prepare meals, medical conditions can necessitate special dietary restrictions, and lack of income can compound all these problems by making nutritious foods hard to afford.

This fact sheet describes the federal programs that provide nutrition assistance to older Americans. Table 1 shows federal spending on nutrition programs that assisted older adults in 2007.

Food Stamp Program

Food stamps, the primary form of federal food assistance for low-income Americans of all ages, provided monthly benefits to more than 26 million people living in more than 11 million households across the United States in 2006.1 As a result of the reauthorization of the 2008 Farm Bill, the minimum monthly benefit, standard deduction, and asset limits for eligibility were raised and indexed for annual inflation. The reauthorization also changed the name of the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

In 2006, the average monthly benefit was $74 for a single older person and $91 per elderly household. The average monthly income, after deductions, of older households receiving food stamps was $364.

Eighteen percent of all households receiving food stamps included at least one person over the age of 60. About 2 million older adults (80 percent of whom lived alone) received food stamps.

Congregate/Home-Delivered Meals

The Older Americans Act (OAA) funds two nutrition programs designed to provide meals for older persons. Each meal must provide one-third of the daily recommended dietary allowances. There is no income restriction for recipients, but service providers must target meals to people most in need. Funding limitations restrict the number of persons who can receive meals.

The Congregate Meals Program was designed to combat both poor nutrition and social isolation among older persons. These meals are served in group settings such as senior centers or churches. Meals are often coordinated with other social services such as transportation or health screenings. In 2006, 98 million meals were served to 1.7 million people. Congress appropriated $411 million for this program in 2008.

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Table 1: Federal Spending on Nutrition Programs that Assist Older Adults, 2007
Food Stamps $34 billion
OAA - Meal Programs $712 million
CSFP $107 million
CACFP $ 2 billion
TEFAP $190 million
SFMNP $15 million