The budget sent to Congress Tuesday for fiscal year 2018 puts the country’s ambivalence over feeding hungry citizens back on the agenda—this time in the guise of defunding food programs for seniors, millions of whom are homebound, ill, and unable to cook or shop. In March, the Trump administration announced it was slashing federal funds for those programs, meaning that more seniors will go hungry, and waiting lists—already numbering in the thousands in some parts of the country—will get larger. The wait for a meal will get longer, too, leaving thousands of seniors, including those just discharged from a hospital, with few options for nutritious food.
As the number of seniors has increased, so has the number of people, particularly the very old, who need food. Yet, over the years, increases in federal funding—funneled primarily through the Older Americans Act, which accounts for about 35 percent of the budgets of the nation’s roughly 5,000 meal programs—have not kept pace with the need, as I reported for The Nation in 1998 and 2013.
This year, the Trump budget calls for real cuts in food programs for seniors, not just smaller increases. Erika Kelly, the government-affairs officer for Meals on Wheels America, an umbrella organization for the Meals on Wheels network, says the network is already serving 23 million fewer meals than in 2005, a decline that has resulted in an increase in hunger. Today some 10 million elders are threatened by hunger, a 65 percent increase over the past decade.
Apparently, numbers like those don’t bother Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney. As the budget was unveiled, Mulvaney remarked, “This is the first time, I think, in a long time that an administration has written a budget through the eyes of the people who are actually paying the taxes. We’re not going to measure our success by how much money we spend but by how many people we actually help.” And at his March news conference, Mulvaney disdainfully told reporters Meals on Wheels didn’t help the people it was designed to serve. “Meals on Wheels sounds great,” but “to take that federal money and give it to the states, and say, ‘Look, we want to give you money for programs that don’t work’—I can’t defend that anymore.”
The program, he said, was one of many that is “just not showing any results,” a conclusion challenged by several academic studies. A recent randomized controlled study funded by the AARP Foundation showed significant differences among seniors on waiting lists, those receiving home-delivered meals, and those getting frozen-food deliveries. Seniors with home-delivered meals reported the greatest improvement in health and quality of life. A 2013 study by Brown University researchers found that meals delivered to seniors allowed them to stay in their homes rather than go into costly nursing facilities, resulting in net savings to Medicaid, which finances about half of all nursing-home stays.
Mike Williams, an Indiana man whose 88-year-old father receives meals, recently sent an e-mail that speaks to the program’s results. His father, he said, is dependent on the program and “very concerned he may lose this service.” Williams told me he is his father’s only child and still working, and it would be nearly impossible to replace the daily delivery. “Not only does the service provide him with a good, nutritious meal, but the added benefit of having the delivery person touch base with him is a blessing. I find comfort in knowing he is having another real person liven up his day.”