The Senior Nutrition Program celebrates 50 years of healthy aging
By Jay Nachman
Good nutrition is essential to wellness across the lifespan. Since its inception 50 years ago, the national Senior Nutrition Program (SNP) has been providing healthy, well-balanced meals in a variety of group settings, such as senior community centers, as well as to the homes of older adults.
When it was signed into law in March 1972, the Older Americans Act designated the Senior Nutrition Program as the first federal program to support the health and well-being of older adults through nutrition services.
Under the program, approximately 5,000 nutrition program providers now serve an estimated one million meals each day to older adults across the country. “The nutrition program targets those with the greatest social and economic need, including people with low incomes, those living in rural areas and minority communities,” said Keri Lipperini, director of the Office of Nutrition and Health Promotion Programs at the Administration for Community Living, which oversees the Senior Nutrition Program.
Data shows that 81% of congregate meal participants and 90% of home-delivered meal participants report eating healthier foods because of the meals received, according to Lipperini. Most nutrition program participants also say the program has led to improved health, healthy weight management, and continued independent living in their own homes.
“Prior to my work at the Administration for Community Living, I managed local nutrition programs. I know firsthand the difference they make in the lives of older adults every single day,” Lipperini said. “For decades, our programs have offered nutritious meals and socialization opportunities, all while promoting overall health and well-being for older adults across the country. We look forward to a future fueled by innovation, education, and, of course, nutrition.”
PCA food programs
Through SNP funding, Philadelphia Corporation for Aging provides more than 27,500 meals to older adults throughout the city each week.
“Nutrition programs are a simple, straightforward and cost-effective way of taking care of some of the most basic needs to help keep someone in their home,” said Bea Winn, PCA’s assistant director of health and nutrition. “It’s very rewarding. And it’s a tangible thing: You provide someone with a nutritious meal that provides sustenance. Everyone can relate to the idea that people need food.”
The nutritional requirements and the setting are key when providing meals, Winn said. The meals must meet specific standards to ensure they are nutritionally balanced and appropriate for a healthy lifestyle. Those standards include requirements for nutrients, such as calories, protein, carbohydrates, fiber and fat, in addition to specific vitamins and minerals needed to support healthy aging. Meal components must include adequate sources of protein, fruits and vegetables, reduced-fat dairy, and whole grains.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, PCA dished up more than 1,000 meals each week to older adults at 28 senior community centers and satellite meal sites located throughout Philadelphia. These congregate meals are provided in a group setting where older adults can enjoy far more than good nutrition. Senior centers are the perfect location for meals because they also provide socialization, education and fitness opportunities. (Throughout the pandemic, PCA pivoted to provide packaged, grab-and-go-style meals at many senior centers, since they weren’t able to offer the usual choice of a hot or cold meal served onsite five days a week.)
In addition to proving congregate meals, PCA delivers approximately 3,500 hot or frozen meals a week to older adults’ homes through its Meal Distribution Center in North Philadelphia. These home-delivered meals provide vital nutrition and regular contact to older adults who cannot cook or shop for food on their own. While there are no income requirements to receive meals, people who struggle to afford healthy food often benefit from this program.
During the summer, PCA also distributes Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers totaling $24 to income-eligible older Philadelphians. The checks, which are funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, can be used at farmers markets to purchase Pennsylvania-grown produce. Last summer, more than 20,000 older adults received the vouchers. The produce voucher program supplements the Senior Nutrition Program by providing an additional source of fresh food.
PCA is looking to the future and how it can best serve the older adults who rely on the agency to help meet their nutritional needs. One example of future innovation could see PCA providing culturally appropriate meals for the city’s ethnically diverse older adult population.
“We could potentially work with restaurants or food trucks in the community while ensuring that the meals still meet nutritional guidelines,“ said Winn. “We are considering new ways to meet people where they are.”
For more information about PCA’s nutrition programs for older adults, call the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040.
Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.