By David Griffith

Being able to consistently afford and access food is key to maintaining good physical and emotional health as one ages. In the field of aging, improving senior nutrition and reducing food insecurity is a vital step in addressing many public health issues.

Food insecurity can arise when one does not have the money to afford their meals. However, food insecurity can also stem from geographic barriers, such as living in a neighborhood without healthy food options or a transit system to reach grocery stores. For older adults and others who may have mobility or transportation challenges, food insecurity can result from the difficulties in shopping for food.

Older adults are particularly vulnerable to the health consequences of food insecurity. Research from AARP has shown that food insecurity is closely linked to the development of health problems such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, or diabetes. Food insecurity and poor nutrition has also been linked to mental health issues including depression.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest government program that targets food insecurity. Those who qualify based on household resource and income limits receive a monthly allotment that can go towards purchasing groceries and produce.

SNAP particularly helps low-income seniors, many of whom are on fixed incomes, to afford food while also covering their other household expenses. According to the National Council on Aging, approximately 4.8 million low-income adults aged 60 and over rely on an average SNAP benefit of $128 per month to buy nutritious food.

Yet, SNAP is still highly underutilized among older adults. The National Council on Aging reports that only two out of five older adults who would qualify for SNAP are enrolled in the program. Lack of knowledge about the program, confusion around eligibility requirements, and the stigma around public benefits all combine to keep many seniors who could benefit from SNAP from enrolling.

Thus, policymakers and service providers should be focused on making SNAP benefits more accessible to older adults who are facing the adverse effects of food insecurity. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, the opposite is happening.

Every five years, Congress must pass legislation that sets national agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and forestry policy, commonly referred to as the “Farm Bill.” Included in the Farm Bill is directives around the funding of SNAP.

In the most recent version of the Farm Bill that passed the House of Representatives in June, the process of obtaining and keeping SNAP benefits would become more complicated for older adults and other food insecure households.

One change to SNAP within the House bill would add stricter work requirements for adults between the ages of 50 and 59. Advocates worry that these requirements fail to account for many of the age-related barriers facing 50 to 59-year-old workers, including age discrimination, caregiving responsibilities, and a higher incidence of chronic illnesses for members of this age group. The bill also lacks sufficient funding for job training and resources for SNAP recipients looking for work.

The bill would also hurt younger SNAP recipients who may have struggle to meet the stricter work requirements due to their responsibilities as caregivers for older relatives. Additionally, older adults who live in a household with other SNAP recipients could be forced to cover more of their household’s expenses if others in their household lose their benefits due to the harsher work requirements.

Despite the bill passing the House, there is still hope for preserving SNAP and preventing the new restrictions and barriers from being implemented. The Senate’s version of the Farm Bill, which also passed this month, maintained funding for SNAP without adding in the harsher work requirements. Unlike the House bill, which passed with only Republican support, the Senate bill was a much more bipartisan effort with strong majorities from both parties supporting the measure.

The House and Senate will now need to negotiate a compromise bill, but they are far apart on several nutrition and farm policies, with SNAP at the center of the debate. The battle over SNAP is expected to continue to heat up over the remainder of the summer.

Members of Congress need to hear from their constituents, particularly older adults, about the importance of preserving SNAP. Many older adults in our community are relying on this program to get the food they need to maintain their health and livelihood. You can find contact information for your representatives by visiting www.senate.gov and www.house.gov, or by calling the congressional switchboard at 202-225-3121.

If you or someone you know might qualify for SNAP, visit the Philadelphia County Assistance Office at 801 Market St. or by phone at 215-560-7226. Electronic applications for SNAP can be accessed at www.compass.state.pa.us.