How to Safely Feed Food-Insecure Seniors During a Pandemic

The challenge is striking a balance between food security and coronavirus prevention, especially among the most vulnerable populations.



Seattle’s Pike Place Market is not just a fish-flinging tourist attraction: The market is also home to a senior center and food bank that serves breakfast and lunch to between 100 and 150 seniors a day. As the city contends with the coronavirus, however, participation at group meals has gone down about 20 percent in the last week, according to Pike Market Senior Center’s deputy director, Mason Lowe.

The World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday officially declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. In Washington, the number of cases in the surrounding King County hit 190 on Wednesday, and Governor Jay Inslee announced a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has advised seniors to stay at home as much as possible, so even smaller gatherings may pose a risk for them

“Several congregate meal sites are closing out of an abundance of caution,” says Meghan Erkkinen, a representative for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. “We anticipate we’ll see more site closures.”

Remaining open means taking additional precautionary measures. “We’ve suspended all non-essential activities,” says Lowe. That means fitness, dance, and art classes have all been cancelled for now. The senior center is also promoting hygiene and stepping up their cleaning procedures. But they’re doing everything they can continue to serve food, as many vulnerable seniors may not have anywhere else safe to go. “We recognize that for our most vulnerable clients, we play a big role in their health,” says Lowe.

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About 28 percent of adults aged 65 and older reported living alone, according to a 2017 Administration on Community Living report. For that reason, having places to gather socially and get support is crucial; more than 750,000 people visit one of the country’s 11,000 senior centers one to three times a week, staying an average of around 3 hours. A different 2017 report found that 7.7 percent of seniors5.5 million people—were food insecure.

For these reasons, the coronavirus has put many service providers in a difficult position. “We spend a lot of time, trying to make sure low-income people aren’t isolated, yet isolation is some of the best advice to get through this crisis,” says Lowe. As a result, social workers are adjusting work styles by not visiting hospitals or nursing homes and taking care of as much as possible by phone.

As Public Health departments around the nation recommend that seniors participate in social distancing, donations to food banks dwindle, and congregate meals are suspended, striking a balance between food security and disease prevention is a growing challenge.

On March 9, representatives from the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs (NANASP) and Meals on Wheels America sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar requesting supplemental emergency funding, roughly $250 million—or 25 percent of the current Older Americans Act nutrition program budget—to maintain senior nutrition programs. (The initial $8.3 billion coronavirus preparedness bill enacted on March 6 did not include any specific funding for senior nutrition programs.)

Additional funds will probably also be necessary to replenish and expand the supply of shelf-stable and frozen meals, or hire additional personnel, that will likely be needed, for example, if the coronavirus outbreak lasts several months or if quarantines are necessary. “If senior centers are forced to close, participants—even if they become homebound—still need to get a meal,” Robert Blancato, executive director of NANASP, told Civil Eats.

Shifting Operations to Feed and Protect Seniors

As cruise ship evacuees arrive to quarantine at Lackland air force base in San Antonio, Texas, the city has already declared a state of emergency. To be prepared, Vinsen Faris, CEO of Meals on Wheels San Antonio, has been developing contingency plans for food deliveries. Meals on Wheels serves 3,400 people a day in the greater San Antonio area. More than 60 percent of their volunteers are over age 60, however, so safety concerns that keep them home could have a serious impact on food delivery.

“If, at some point, we need to pull volunteers from delivering and go to staff only, we’ll have to do hot meals along with frozen meals,” he says. In this scenario, they will limit and stagger the days of hot food delivery, meaning they won’t see clients daily. Staff working from home will make calls to check on clients. In preparation, his team has been packaging their own shelf-stable meals for future delivery. “Next week, we’ll start to distribute shelf-stable boxes so that people have them ready,” says Faris. “The problem is that—even if we ask them to save it for emergencies—we know nine times out of 10, they will eat it right away.”

For many senior centers, shutting the doors is the last resort. “Closing isn’t really an option for us,” says Brittany Blue, chief marketing and philanthropy officer at Sound Generations, a senior-focused nonprofit in Seattle whose community dining and meals on wheels programs serve 3,910 and 2,313 people, respectively.

Instead of closing, they’ve ramped up precautionary measures to make sure they are available to assist those most in need, Blue says. Shuttles are now cleaned twice a day instead of once a week, while high-traffic spaces—door handles, elevator buttons, and copy machines—are cleaned three times a day. As shuttle demand dipped, Sound Generations had their volunteer drivers start delivering meals and medications to seniors at home instead.

Shifting operations is the new norm. At the Ballard Food Bank in Seattle last week, there was a 30 percent decrease in people coming to shop. The food bank feeds an average of 1,200 people a week—about 26 percent of whom are over 55. This week, the food bank’s grocery store model gave way to pre-packed bags that get handed to patrons.

“By taking this step, we’re able to keep social distancing in place, and volunteers are more comfortable,” says Jen Muzia, executive director of the Ballard Food Bank. “We want to make sure everyone stays healthy so we can keep operating.”

Fortunately, Muzia says that as some senior volunteers step back, other, younger volunteers are seeing the need and stepping up to help. But another challenge arrives, she says, as the general population stocks up on supplies. When the populace at large is filling their pantries, there’s less food available for grocery recovery—donations from food suppliers that would otherwise be wasted, and which food banks often rely on. “Seniors are on fixed incomes, making food a non-negotiable item in the budget,” says Muzia.

Unfortunately, in-kind donations to the Food Lifeline, the Seattle region’s largest hunger-relief organization, which supplies 300 food bank shelters, also declined dramatically last week, according to its marketing officer, Mark Coleman.

Lifeline typically relies on 500 volunteers weekly—18,500 people annually—to repackage food for individual delivery. But Lifeline canceled volunteer shifts as a precautionary measure. Without volunteers, they may need to shift to pre-packaged, ready-to-go foods, which will likely be more costly. “Right now, we’re managing to stay at good levels, but if things continue like this, we could reach critically low levels of food,” says Coleman.

National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs’ Blancato says with Congress going into recess next week, the best-case scenario to secure supplemental funding is if both the House and Senate act swiftly. “The one thing I know is that senior nutrition issues have always been bipartisan,” he added.

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View Comments (3)

  1. ROBERT EGGER
    Thursday, March 12th, 2020
    If your community or neighborhood has a Facebook page to share information, please consider launching an elder grocery/pharmacy support network. Many elders will be rightly scared to leave their home. Contact can be kept to a minimum for the safety of all. Be safe, but realize that charities will not be able to meet the need....WE need to step up and be helpful to neighbors.
  2. Juanita moore
    Monday, March 16th, 2020
    I’m a senior trying to get fresh food
  3. Monday, March 16th, 2020
    What a great read that is a impacting the company I work for every day! Thank you for sharing these examples of adaptation. I hope it inspires other food banks, pantries, and recovery organizations to think about how to handle feeding seniors during the outbreak.