Food and Nutrition Assistance Programs

Background

In 2020, nearly 9.5 million adults age 50 and older lacked consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life due to inadequate financial resources. Older adults may face life challenges as they age such as experiencing unexpected or high health care costs, job loss, or the death of a spouse or other loved one. This may result in financial instability and make it difficult to afford food. The share of older adults experiencing food insecurity stayed relatively stable between 2019 and 2020, despite a pandemic and widespread job loss that hit older workers especially hard. This is likely due to extra federal support. During this period, however, disparities in food insecurity widened among older adults of certain racial and ethnic groups. 

Food insecurity has significant negative impacts on older adults, particularly on their health. Older adults who are food-insecure are more likely than their food-secure counterparts to have limitations on activities of daily living, have conditions like diabetes and depression, and experience heart attacks. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation’s largest domestic nutrition assistance program. It provides financial assistance to eligible individuals and families with low incomes to purchase food, including over eight million SNAP households with adults age 50 and older in 2019. The average monthly benefit for SNAP households with at least one adult age 50 and older was $142 in fiscal year 2019. 

Individuals and families who meet certain income and sometimes asset thresholds qualify for benefits. States have the flexibility to presume households’ eligibility for SNAP when they qualify for a non-cash Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefit or a state maintenance of effort-funded benefit. This broad-based categorical eligibility has been in place for more than 20 years. It is associated with higher participation in SNAP among adults age 60 or older. 

Despite the need, participation in SNAP among eligible older adults is low. Barriers to participation include perceived stigma associated with the program and a burdensome application process. Under current law, many beneficiaries must meet work requirements. People between the ages of 16 and 59 who are considered able to work typically must meet a general work requirement; those between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents must meet additional requirements. Proposals to increase work requirements could restrict access to SNAP more for older adults than for younger adults. Older adults typically take longer to find work than younger adults. 

SNAP benefits are delivered through electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards. These cards can be used at participating locations, including some farmers' markets. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture SNAP online purchasing pilot allows SNAP participants in certain states to use their benefits for online food purchases. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the pilot expanded to most states. SNAP benefits cannot be used for delivery, shipping, and other associated fees. 

SNAP is not the nation’s sole food and nutrition program. Food and nutrition assistance can take a variety of forms. It can include vouchers to purchase food, food commodities distributed at soup kitchens and food banks, and food packages. Several federal programs assist food-insecure older adults. They vary with respect to the target population, eligibility requirements, and types of assistance provided, including: 

  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program supplies states with food that can be distributed at no cost to people with low incomes. States arrange for the food to be transported to centers such as soup kitchens and food banks. 
  • The Commodity Supplemental Food Program provides a nutritionally balanced food package to people with low incomes age 60 and older. Local agencies determine eligibility and distribute the food. 
  • The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program enables older adults with low incomes to purchase fresh produce using coupons at farmers' markets or Community Supported Agriculture operations. 
  • The Child and Adult Care Food Program provides cash subsidies to child and adult care institutions and family or group day-care homes. The program primarily serves children. It also helps adults with disabilities or adults age 60 or older in nonresidential care centers. Individuals with low incomes can qualify for free or reduced-price meals. 
  • The Older Americans Act Nutrition Programs provide home-delivered and congregate meals to adults age 60 or older. States and localities determine eligibility for these programs. 

FOOD AND NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS: Policy

FOOD AND NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS: Policy

Benefits and eligibility

Policymakers should increase food benefits and expand eligibility for food programs. 

Nutritional adequacy for vulnerable Americans must be ensured. This includes those who have limited or no capacity to buy, prepare, and store food. 

Congress should adequately fund food and nutrition programs for all states. 

Policymakers should retain and expand broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This may include: 

  • expanding broad-based categorical eligibility to all states, 
  • raising the gross income limit to 200 percent (the current maximum level) of the Federal Poverty Level and, 
  • raising or eliminating the asset limit. 

Policymakers should improve access to food benefits for eligible older adults, including through: 

  • encouraging program innovation, 
  • streamlining enrollment and recertification processes, and 
  • ensuring participants receive the full benefits for which they are eligible while maintaining program integrity. Streamlining the enrollment process should include strengthening partnerships between federal agencies to improve cross-program enrollment and data sharing. 

Policymakers should consider policies that reduce frequent entry and exit of food program participants for eligible beneficiaries. 

Policymakers should ensure adequate food benefits, including through re-evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan on a regular basis so that SNAP benefits more accurately account for the actual food costs borne by households with low incomes. 

States should undertake program reforms to expand SNAP eligibility for older households with low incomes. One option is to eliminate asset tests. 

Eligibility for the SNAP Restaurant Meals Program should not expand beyond the vulnerable groups identified in the statute: older adults, people with disabilities, and people experiencing homelessness. 

The Social Security Administration should screen for individuals age 65 and older who receive benefits through the Social Security program that are less than the maximum Supplemental Security Income benefit and notify them that they may be eligible for SSI. 

SNAP should be accessible in all U.S. states and territories, including Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. 

Extended families

The definition of household in SNAP regulations should be clarified. It should be easier for extended families to qualify for and receive adequate benefits. For example, extended families could include an older individual who is eligible for SNAP and residing part-time with an ineligible caregiver. Or a child who is eligible for SNAP may live part-time with an older adult who is ineligible. 

Technology for delivering benefits

Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should ensure that states do not deter the use of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards needed for services. They should not call undue attention to or stigmatize users. 

EBT cards used for SNAP benefits should be available through the mail. Beneficiaries should have the option to pick up the card at the SNAP office. 

Recipients of food benefits should have broad access to EBT terminals. They should be able to use mobile payment platforms. 

Methods for delivering food benefits should keep up with technological developments in the retail environment, including online SNAP purchases and delivery. New methods for managing benefits must be accessible and have strong consumer protections while protecting program integrity. 

Policymakers should expand access to online SNAP grocery shopping and delivery. USDA should identify and address barriers for older SNAP participants. 

Outreach and education

Food and nutrition programs should have adequate funding to engage in robust outreach efforts. 

Older adults (and organizations that serve older adults) must be made aware of available programs. 

Potential recipients must have adequate information to make informed choices when applying for food assistance benefits. 

States should take advantage of the Hunger Prevention Act of 1988. It provides matching funds to states that have food assistance outreach programs for families with low incomes. 

Healthy eating and nutrition

Policymakers should support efforts to improve the quality of foods purchased and consumed by SNAP recipients, such as through nutrition education and healthy food incentives. 

The federal government should continue to fund and consider expanding the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program. The program incentivizes fruit and vegetable consumption among SNAP recipients at farmers' markets and retailers throughout the country. 

The USDA should encourage restaurants participating in the Restaurant Meals Program to provide healthier options. 

Work requirements

Policymakers should not expand work requirements for SNAP recipients.