Food and Nutrition Assistance Programs


In 2018, nearly 10 million adults age 50 and older lacked consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life due to inadequate financial resources. The COVID-19 pandemic and associated job losses have led to significant increases in food insecurity for older adults, especially among Black and Hispanic older adults.

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 families to purchase qualifying food items. Benefits are relatively low. The average monthly benefit was about $130 per person in fiscal year 2019.

Individuals and families who meet certain income and 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 or other eligible benefit.. This broad-based categorical eligibility has been in place for more than 20 years.

Participation in SNAP among eligible older adults is also low. Both stigma associated with the program and a burdensome application process limit participation. Under current law, some beneficiaries must meet work requirements. People between the ages of 16 and 59 who do not have a child living with them and are considered able to work must meet a general work requirement; those between the ages of 18 and 49 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 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 and vary with respect to the target population, eligibility requirements, and types of assistance provided. They include:

  • 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 age 60 and older with low incomes. Local agencies determine eligibility and distribute the food.
  • The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program enables older adults with low incomes to purchase fresh produce 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 and older in nonresidential care centers. People 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 and older. States and localities determine eligibility for these programs.



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 for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture should revise the Thrifty Food Plan. It should account more accurately 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 homeless people.

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.

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 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.

Congress and the USDA should consider expanding the definition of a retail food store. It should include e-commerce companies that deliver qualifying foods while protecting program integrity.

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.