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Updated: September 29, 2023 Senior Resource Guide 2023

Column: Older adult food insecurity and Meals on Wheels

Food insecurity is a growing issue in our community.

Dr. Moses S. Dixon

Compounding this problem is a lack of culturally appropriate or medically suitable food for many older adults. After all, if someone does not like a specific type of food, they probably will not eat it, which negatively impacts their physical and, by extension, mental health. Also, providing heavily processed food to someone with a condition like diabetes will result in them either not eating it or eating it and worsening their condition.

The Central Massachusetts Agency on Aging Inc seeks to address this issue by working with our partners to provide culturally competent and medically tailored meals and groceries to Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) elders and their families residing in the 61 cities and towns in Central Massachusetts. In addition to running a food pantry in our office at 330 Southwest Cutoff Suite 203, Worcester, MA 01604, we won an award for Nutrition Innovation at USAging’s Annual Conference in Salt Lake City for our work installing hydroponic farms to grow fresh produce in several senior centers.

Pre-COVID, one in 11 people residing in Massachusetts faced food insecurity. This figure has risen since the start of the pandemic. A report from November from The Worcester Regional Research Bureau concluded 30,360 people out of the total population of 234,767 (12.9%) in the city of Worcester were food insecure. In August 2022, the Worcester County Food Bank reported a 26% increase in users over 2019, which the CEO attributes to inflation. This trend is likely to continue in the short term. Things will likely worsen over the winter with rising fuel costs, meaning staying warm will come at the expense of an adequate diet for many older adults and their families. Data from Boston nonprofit Project Bread indicates families with children have a 19% food insecurity rate.

Given one in four households are multi-generational, this also impacts older adults. Older adults, predominantly minority seniors, on fixed incomes are especially vulnerable. Families of color report a 24% risk of food insecurity. Due to the rising cost of food and reductions in SNAP Benefits, Meals on Wheels is a means of helping to meet the nutritional needs of older adults residing in Central Massachusetts.

COVID increased the demand for home-delivered meals BIPOC elders. This has shown between federal fiscals 2019 and 2020 (during lockdown), there were the following demand increases in Central Massachusetts:

• 19% for Asians

• 40% for African Americans and African immigrants

• 28% for Latinos

• 48% for non-minorities

The significant spike in minorities seeking services was because procuring food during lockdown was difficult. Since then, BIPOC Elders have complained about the meals they have been receiving as they are neither culturally competent nor medically tailored. Efforts by our partners have certainly been welcome.

These partnerships deserve much credit for their work, but more needs to be done. More research needs to be done about the greater demand for control over flavoring, which might be obtainable in a manner that complies with nutrition regulations via greater access to condiments and seasoning blends. There is a demand from consumers on Meals on Wheels to have more opportunities to provide feedback on nutrition programming. A greater diversity of food would lead to healthier older adults and families.

Dr. Moses S. Dixon is the president and CEO of the Worcester nonprofit Central Massachusetts Agency on Aging, Inc.

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