Nutrition Assistance Programs:

Agencies Could Do More to Help Address the Nutritional Needs of Older Adults

GAO-20-18: Published: Nov 21, 2019. Publicly Released: Dec 23, 2019.

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Federal nutrition guidelines are the basis for nutrition assistance programs that serve older adults. However, the guidelines focus on a healthy population and not on the needs of many older adults, such as those with common health conditions and those over age 70. Most older adults have more than one chronic condition, such as diabetes or heart disease.

As the population ages, demand for federal nutrition assistance programs will increase. We recommended that the Department of Health and Human Services develop a plan to focus on older adults’ needs in a future update to the guidelines.

Senior citizens sharing a meal

Senior citizens sharing a meal

Multimedia:

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Kathryn A. Larin
(202) 512-7215
larink@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Research shows that nutrition can affect the health outcomes of older adults. Federal nutrition guidelines provide broad guidance for healthy populations, but do not focus on the varying nutritional needs of older adults. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) data show that the majority of older adults have chronic conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease. Research shows that such individuals may have different nutritional needs. As older adults age, they may also face barriers, such as a reduced appetite, impairing their ability to meet their nutritional needs. HHS plans to focus on older adults in a future update to the guidelines, but has not documented a plan for doing so. Documenting such a plan could help ensure guidelines better address the needs of the population.

Of the six federal nutrition assistance programs serving older adults, four have requirements for food that states and localities provide directly to participants, and federal agencies oversee states' monitoring of these requirements. In HHS's and U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) meal programs, states must ensure meals meet requirements. Yet, HHS does not gather information from states, such as approved menus, to confirm this, and localities in two of the four selected states said state monitoring of menus was not occurring. Further, USDA regional officials told GAO they lack information on how meal programs operate at adult day care centers as they primarily focus on other sites for their on-site reviews. Additional monitoring could help HHS and USDA ensure meal programs meet nutritional requirements and help providers meet older adults' varying needs.

Examples of Lunches Served to Older Adults through Nutrition Programs in Selected States

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In the states GAO selected, meal and food providers of the four nutrition programs with nutrition requirements reported various challenges, such as an increased demand for services. Providers in three of the four states reported having waiting lists for services. Providers of HHS and USDA meal programs in all four states also reported challenges tailoring meals to meet certain dietary needs, such as for diabetic or pureed meals. HHS and USDA have provided some information to help address these needs. However, providers and state officials across the four states reported that more information would be useful and could help them better address the varying nutritional needs of older adults.

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. population is aging and, by 2030, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that one in five Americans will be 65 or older. Recognizing that adequate nutrition is critical to health, physical ability, and quality of life, the federal government funds various programs to provide nutrition assistance to older adults through meals, food packages, or assistance to purchase food. This report examines (1) the relationship of older adults' nutrition to health outcomes and the extent to which federal nutrition guidelines address older adults' nutritional needs, (2) nutrition requirements in federal nutrition assistance programs serving older adults and how these requirements are overseen, and (3) challenges program providers face in meeting older adults' nutritional needs. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance and conducted a comprehensive literature search; visited a nongeneralizable group of four states—Arizona, Louisiana, Michigan, and Vermont—and 25 meal and food distribution sites, selected for a high percentage of adults 60 or older, and variations in urban and rural locations, and poverty level; and interviewed officials from HHS, USDA, states, national organizations, and local providers.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making five recommendations, including that HHS develop a plan to include nutrition guidelines for older adults in a future update, and that HHS and USDA improve oversight of meal programs and provide additional information to meal providers to help them meet older adults' nutritional needs. HHS and USDA generally concurred with our recommendations.

For more information, contact Kathryn A. Larin at (202) 512-7215 or larink@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS agreed with this recommendation, stating that ACL plans to work with the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and other relevant HHS officials and agencies to document HHS's plans to emphasize the specific and varying nutritional needs of older adults in the 2025-2030 update. HHS also stated that ACL plans to acquire the services of a registered dietician with specialized expertise in older adults' nutritional needs. We will consider closing this recommendation when these efforts are completed.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of ACL should work with other relevant HHS officials to document the department's plan to focus on the specific nutritional needs of older adults in the 2025-2030 update of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which would include, in part, plans to identify existing information gaps on older adults' specific nutritional needs. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Community Living

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS agreed with this recommendation. HHS stated that ACL's program and evaluation offices will collaborate on the development of plans to ensure state compliance with federal requirements.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of ACL should direct regional offices to take steps to ensure states are monitoring providers to ensure meal consistency with federal nutrition requirements for meals served in the congregate and home-delivered meal programs. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Community Living

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: FNS officials agreed with the intent of improving oversight of CACFP meals provided in adult care centers. They noted that activities and changes in this area must be consistent with statutory and regulatory requirements, balanced with current priorities given the size of the program, and mindful of resources available to perform additional oversight. While we recognize that the CACFP serves fewer adults than children and that FNS oversight resources are limited, we believe that FNS is in a position to identify the best way to improve its oversight of CACFP meals provided in adult day care centers while taking into consideration the availability of its resources.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of FNS should take steps to improve its oversight of CACFP meals provided in adult day care centers. For example, FNS could amend its approach for determining federal onsite reviews of CACFP meal providers to more consistently include adult day care centers. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Office of the Secretary: Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services: Food and Nutrition Service

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS agreed with this recommendation. The agency stated that ACL will award a contract in fiscal year 2020 for a new National Resource Center on Nutrition and Aging to, among other things, centralize information on promising approaches so nutrition services providers can access it easily. We will consider closing this recommendation when this effort is complete.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of ACL should centralize information on promising approaches for making meal accommodations to meet the nutritional needs of older adult participants in the congregate and home-delivered meal programs, for example in one location on its National Resource Center on Nutrition and Aging website, to assist providers' efforts. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Community Living

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: FNS officials generally agreed with this recommendation, stating that there is existing guidance and information on the adult component of the CACFP, which it communicates through multiple channels. They noted that some states and localities may be unaware of these resources, in part, because of high turnover among staff who administer these programs. FNS officials acknowledged that they could do more to increase awareness of existing resources, as well as continue to identify and share new practices to help entities providing CACFP meals in adult day care centers address challenges associated with providing meals that meet nutritional needs of older adults.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of FNS should take steps to better disseminate existing information that could help state and local entities involved in providing CACFP meals meet the varying nutritional needs of older adult participants, as well as continue to identify additional promising practices or other information on meal accommodations to share with CACFP entities. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Office of the Secretary: Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services: Food and Nutrition Service

 

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