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Older Americans participating in Congregate Nutrition Programs feel the benefits of the Older Americans Act—and advocate for support among leaders in Washington, D.C.

This month, the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs (NANASP) will conclude its three-year research grant project funded by The Retirement Research Foundation (RRF). Since June 2016, NANASP has been studying the benefits of Older Americans Act (OAA) funded Congregate Nutrition Programs to the health and well-being of older adults. 

The grant was requested to examine the value of socialization, which has not been given individual attention, even though it is one of the stated obligations of an OAA nutrition program.  The work began with surveys of both program participants and provider staff. In just three years, NANASP surveyed a total of 3,824 Congregate Nutrition Program participants in 14 states (Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin). NANASP also collected 90 surveys total from Congregate Nutrition Program providers.

The next phase of the work involved in-person visits and conversations with older adults initiated by NANASP Executive Director Bob Blancato. He visited 21 Congregate Nutrition Programs in 17 states, speaking in front of more than 1,100 participants and conversing one-on-one with approximately 300 older adults.  The overwhelming majority of these were done at lunch tables.

According to Blancato, when he asked each person “What is the main reason you come to this program when you do?” well over 90% cited socialization. In other words, older adults validated the importance of socialization.

Paper Plate Advocacy

One objective of this project was to help strengthen the advocacy work backing the OAA, which allocates the most amount of funding to its nutrition program. In July 2019, NANASP launched a paper plate advocacy campaign to complement its successful survey and interview work.

We sent 2,415 paper plates total to 12 congregate nutrition program sites in 8 different states (Arizona, California, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Vermont, and Washington) — all of which had at some point participated in the research project. The plates had a pre-printed message: “The Older Americans Act nutrition program is important to me because…” and included space for participants to add a personalized message.

Completed plates were to be sent to the Members of Congress representing that program’s area during the August recess. To date, we are aware of over 1,000 older adults who have signed these plates with their personalized messages.

A participant at a program in Clyde Park, I.L. shares a paper plate message

Participants at the Meals on Wheels Wake County program in Raleigh, N.C. share their messages

A Spanish speaking congregate program participant shares their paper plate message at SeniorServ in Anaheim, C.A.

A participant at the Serving Seniors program in San Diego, C.A. shares a message.

According to the Administration for Community Living (ACL), more than 50% of Congregate Nutrition Program participants are 75 years or older; 58% of participants report that one meal provides one half or more of their total daily food intake, and 76% of participants believe their health has improved because of the program. In the United States today, 28% of non-institutionalized older people live alone and almost half of older women age 75 and over live alone. In light of our past three years of research, it is clear that the Congregate Nutrition Program plays an important role in combatting the harmful health outcomes associated with loneliness and isolation.

The timing of this grant, and the foresight of The RRF in supporting it, reflects the growing focus in Congress and the Administration on isolation and loneliness, especially as it relates to older adults, and the recognition of good nutrition being a social determinant of health. The OAA Congregate Nutrition Program has been in the forefront of addressing both issues for over 40 years; it just has not been recognized as doing so. NANASP hopes the results of this grant, leading into the expected renewal of the Older Americans Act this year, will help initiate a deeper commitment by Congress to the OAA nutrition programs, including the funding these programs so richly deserve.

To review the full results from the three years of research, visit NANASP’s website.

This is a companion piece to “Combatting Loneliness with Congregate Nutrition Programs.”

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Bob Blancato, MPA; Meaghan McMahon, MSW; Meredith Ponder Whitmire, JD

Bob Blancato is the President of Matz, Blancato and Associates, the National Coordinator of the bipartisan 3000-member Elder Justice Coalition, and the Executive Director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs (NANASP). Meredith Ponder Whitmire is the Vice President of Matz, Blancato and Associates. She is the Policy and Advocacy Director for NANASP and the Federal Policy and Media Coordinator for the Elder Justice Coalition. Meaghan McMahon is the Founder and Director of MBM Consulting and project manager for this grant to NANASP from the Retirement Research Foundation.

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