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Elderly nutrition program turns 50: NYS Office for the Aging director talks past, present and future

Erie County Department of Senior Services staff hand out frozen meals to older adults Nov. 15, 2021 at the Town of Tonawanda Senior Center.
Tom Dinki
Erie County Department of Senior Services staff hand out frozen meals to older adults Nov. 15, 2021 at the Town of Tonawanda Senior Center.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Nutrition Program for the Elderly becoming part of the Older Americans Act. The national program helps facilitate senior dining centers and home-delivered meals in every state in the nation, and New York has the largest such program of any state. WBFO’s Older Adults Reporter Tom Dinki spoke to New York State Office for the Aging Director Greg Olsen about the program’s long history, present amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and future funding.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Dinki: So March is National Nutrition Month, and this is also the 50th anniversary of the national Nutrition Program for the Elderly. First, can you maybe tell us a little bit about the history of this program and maybe kind of how it came about with the Older Americans Act?

Greg Olsen, New York State Office for the Aging director, speaks at the Rotterdam Senior Center in 2012.
New York State Office for the Aging
Greg Olsen, New York State Office for the Aging director, speaks at the Rotterdam Senior Center in 2012.

Greg Olsen: Support for older adults actually started in New York State in the late ’50s and '60s. Before there ever was an Older Americans Act, there was an Office for Aging that was established as part of the governor's office. And then we became a standalone after the Older Americans Act passed. In 1972 is when the national nutrition program was established, which provided funding for the first time for home-delivered meals and congregate meals. Those are meals that are in senior centers, they might be in public housing or other community outlets.

New York State has the largest nutrition program in the country. Over the 50 years since the program was established in 1972, New York has served over 1 billion meals to over 10.8 million older adults in need.

Dinki: And I see the number of meals the state program has served has only increased during the pandemic, I think, from about 20 million meals in 2019 to about 23 million meals in 2021. How has the pandemic just impacted the way you operate, and I got to assume has only increased the need for the program and the food needs of older adults?

Olsen: We believe that those numbers are conservative once we have verified reporting. So I believe it's much higher than that.

We've never had anything like a pandemic before, but when you get into an emergency, what becomes reality very quickly is we become responsible for anybody over the age of 60. So fortunately, under both the federal major disaster declaration and the state disaster declaration, anybody over the age of 60 could get nutrition support, whether they were eligible or not.

So the things that we were providing were a huge increase in hot meals that were delivered to people's homes, frozen meals or chilled meals that were delivered, emergency meals that would carry people maybe through a week. But in addition to that, there are many individuals who could cook but just weren't able to get to the grocery store because of Matilda's Law and the stay-at-home order, so we were delivering groceries and supplies. We created what's called grab-and-go, where a congregate center that was closed could still prepare those meals, and individuals in the safety of their cars with masks and social distancing, were able to pull into a congregate center in order to get those meals delivered,

What we found is a lot of individuals that we didn't touch before, who are able to adequately take care of themselves, we then became responsible for. They learned about our services and the quality of our services, and they have continued to maintain receipt in those meals.

Hear the extended version of talk with NYS Office for the Aging Director Greg Olsen

Dinki: And of course, as everyone who goes to a grocery store knows, food prices are only rising. I believe the consumer price index says food prices are up about 8% over the last year. So I would assume the need for older adults to get free meals is all the greater, but at the same time, it also has to be costing the state and its partners more money to purchase and produce the food, too. So how do you deal with that?

Olsen: So that is absolutely true. I think we're all feeling the pinch, not only at the supermarket, but in other areas. So it's a multipronged strategy, Tom. The nation received five different stimulus packages, of which over $160 million in federal support came to our office that we immediately distributed to the county Offices for the Aging, who are our primary contractors. They work with another 1,200 community-based organizations. The bulk of those dollars went to nutrition support.

We also help older adults understand, apply and receive SNAP benefits. The average benefit for an older adult’s household is almost $200 a month. That's $2,400 in additional food support. We administer the senior farmers market nutrition program that provides coupons to older adults to not only support local farmers but enable them to purchase commodities, fresh fruits and vegetables. All throughout the summer, we work with the emergency food network, food pantries and soup kitchens to provide support or stopgap support. And then of course, we work with a variety of public and private partners to provide donated food and other types of products. Cisco really stepped up during the pandemic to provide 1.5 million meals to older adults. So I don't think it's a one-lane strategy. There's a variety of different things that we can do to put money back in people's pockets that can help them pay their rent, pay their prescriptions, and afford food.

But certainly the consumer price index is definitely having an impact not only on the cost of food, but on labor, transportation and others. But we've been able to maintain, for the most part, keeping costs below $10 per meal.

Dinki: That being said, any hope for this [state] budget season? And on top of that, any hope for perhaps increased federal funding coming down from Washington?

Olsen: There's always hope. So let's start at the federal level.

There is no question that if policymakers, lawmakers, emergency management people, community members, community-based organizations, if they weren't aware of the aging network prior to COVID pandemic, they certainly are now the role that we have played not only from vaccinations to keeping people in their homes safe, providing nutrition support and other types of services. That has been well documented, which is why we were able to receive a $1.44 billion increase at the federal level.

Our office has been leading a national effort to modernize the Older Americans Act, which is our mothership. It's been amended 11 times since 1965. There has been a tremendous amount of additional work that the states are required to do because of those amendments, but it's never come with resources, which has meant that the state of New York, the governor, the legislature and county governments have had to foot the bill.

So my plan under the Older Americans Act modernization is not only to resource this network the way that it should be. We're asking for a $2.4 billion increase, which would bring an additional $180 million to New York state. That would not only continue these vital services for all the new people that have come on, but will allow us to innovate, provide the flexibility to meet local needs.

Sen. [Kirsten] Gillibrand is championing our bill, and so is Gov. [Kathy] Hochul, who has been a staunch supporter of our agencies, since she's been at the county level. lieutenant governor, and now the governor.

On the state level, it's a little too early to talk about the end game, but I can tell you that Gov. Hochul’s budget is really good for not only our office, but older adults touch so many different systems, from health to transportation to housing to tax and finance.

So between her budget proposal, and each of the Senate and Assembly one houses, there are proposed additional funding for the Office for the Aging. And some of that could be nutrition support, if it winds up being passed in the three ways.

Dinki: Anything else you'd like to say about the nutrition program?

Olsen: I think that I want to finalize by just really congratulating and highlighting the day-to-day paid staff, and the overwhelming number of volunteers that make this network function. I don't think people really understand that folks are starting to get meals ready at 8 o'clock in the morning, with a combination of paid staff, but many, many volunteers. We would not even be close to having the capacity to serve people without volunteers. In New York State, we have almost a million volunteers over the age of 55 that contribute 495 million hours of service every year at an economic value of $14 billion. There are programs and projects in every single community that make up this whole that has allowed us to provide a billion meals to 10.8 million people. And they are really the true heroes and the heartbeat behind the nutrition program and the entire aging network. And they're the ones that deserve all of the praise.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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