We have used this space numerous times in the past to talk about our What A Waste initiative and the benefit that it has been to congregate nutrition programs across the country. Four years after we pilot-tested the concept it is still proving valuable. We are proud to report have now worked with senior nutrition programs in nearly a quarter of the states.
When we first introduced What A Waste the whole concept of food waste and wasted food was not top of mind to Title III programs. In other words, few were acknowledging it, talking about it and certainly not looking at uneaten food as waste or, more important, an unrealized asset to be seized and used to save programs’ resources. More to the point it was not just any resource but one that could be used to feed more seniors.
Feeding seniors is, of course, what the Title III programs are all about — and not just seniors, but specifically food insecure seniors. The Older Americans Act explicitly defines the primary purpose of the senior nutrition programs to be “to reduce hunger and food insecurity.” Who are those folks likely to be? The evidence points to poor seniors.
The sad fact, confirmed by data, is that a very small percentage of poor seniors in most states are reached by congregate nutrition programs. Additionally, the poor make up less than 20% of the seniors participating in congregate meal programs in all but two states. Yes, two.
We think that is saying something – or, rather, that the numbers are talking to us and we need to be listening. So we have been, and we’d like to raise an issue to think about that we believe will be as important as waste was when we introduced that topic.
It has to do with the transfer of congregate nutrition dollars over to home delivered meals as well as supportive services. We know the law allows it and we know it has become pretty much routine practice over the years. But the question is, is that always the best practice? We believe that it is a question worth pondering seriously and long. Because here is what the numbers are saying. Millions of seniors in America are hungry. Millions of dollars that could be used to feed them in congregate programs are being diverted elsewhere. Close to $100 million in 2016, to be precise. We know those other programs are important too. We are not suggesting anything to the contrary.
But just consider this one example from one state that serves many fewer than 10 percent of its hungry seniors. These are numbers that were gleaned from the Administration on Aging database. We took the transfer amount and divided it by the per client cost of providing services. Here is what we found: if the congregate money had been used to provide meals in congregate sites, about 3,700 additional seniors could have been served.
If that sounds like the proverbial drop in the bucket, it is not what the numbers say. Because 3,700 would represent an increase of about 65 percent of the number of clients living in poverty that would be receiving nutritious meals in that particular state. That’s just one example but that’s saying a lot.
When the numbers are talking like that, perhaps we need to listen carefully.