Food and Nutrition Assistance Programs


In 2015 over 10 million adults age 50 and older (10 percent) lacked consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

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 die of a heart attack, have depression, and face limitations of activities ofADLs or Activities of Daily Living are the basic tasks of everyday life, such as eating, bathing, dressing, toileting, and transferring. IADLs or Instrumental Activities of Daily Living are activities related to independent living and include preparing meals, managing money, shopping for… daily living.

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 $127 per person in fiscal year 2018. SNAP participation among eligible older adults is low for a variety of reasons, including stigma associated with the program and a burdensome application process. Under current law, some beneficiaries must meet a work requirement. Able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who have no dependents are limited to three months of benefits every three years unless they work or get training. Expanding these work requirements could limit access to SNAP for older adults who typically take longer to find work than younger adults.

Food and nutrition assistance can take a variety of forms, including vouchers to purchase food, food commodities distributed at soup kitchens and food banks, and food packages. In addition to addressing food insecurity, some federal food assistance programs focus on improving access to nutritious food. Four programs provide assistance to food-insecure older adults with specific needs that may not be met by SNAP:

  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program supplies states with food that can be distributed at no cost to specific assistance centers for 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 low-income people age 60 and older.
  • The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program provides grants to states to enable low-income older adults 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. While the program primarily serves children, it also serves adults with disabilities or adults age 60 or older in nonresidential care centers. Low-income people can qualify for free or reduced price meals.


Benefits and eligibility

In this policy: FederalState

Policymakers should increase food benefits and expand eligibility to ensure nutritional adequacy for vulnerable Americans, including those who have limited or no capacity to buy, prepare, and store food. Congress should adequately fund food and nutrition programs for all states.

The USDA should revise the Thrifty Food Plan to account more accurately for the actual food costs borne by low-income households.

States should undertake program reforms to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility for low-income older households, such as by eliminating 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.

Extended families

In this policy: FederalState

The definition of households in SNAP regulations should be clarified to make it 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 resides part-time with a caregiver who is ineligible, or a child who is eligible for SNAP lives part-time with an older adult who is ineligible).

Technology for delivering benefits

In this policy: FederalState

Congress and the USDA should ensure that states implement their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) programs in such a way that they do not deter the use of EBT cards needed for services and do 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 and should be able to use mobile payment platforms.

Congress and the USDA should ensure that methods for delivering food benefits keep up with technological developments in the retail environment. New methods for managing benefits must be accessible and have strong consumer protections. 

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

Outreach and education

In this policy: FederalState

Food and nutrition programs should have adequate funding to engage in robust outreach efforts that ensure that older adults (and organizations that serve older adults) are aware of available programs and have adequate information to make informed choices when applying for food assistance benefits.

States should take advantage of the Hunger Prevention Act of 1988, which provides matching funds to states that have food assistance outreach programs for low-income families.

Healthy eating and nutrition

In this policy: FederalState

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 Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant program, which incentivizes fruit and vegetable consumption among SNAP recipients at farmers markets and retailers throughout the country.

The USDA should establish stronger nutritional standards than currently exist for the Restaurant Meals Program, especially regarding salt and sugar content.

Work requirements

In this policy: FederalState

Policymakers should not expand work requirements for SNAP recipients.