It's Time to Invest in Nutrition

02/05/2015 01:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

Monday's release of President Obama's Fiscal Year 2016 budget has sparked a lot of discussion this week. It has been both praised and panned for being bold and for recognizing that we have turned a corner and can begin to think about investments in important domestic programs.

One such program where there may in fact be bipartisan agreement is the President's request for a total of $62 million in new funding for the Older Americans Act (OAA) nutrition programs. This program serves meals to older adults in congregate settings and provides home delivered meals. It is funded by the Older Americans Act as well as state and local funds, private support, and the voluntary contributions of the program participants. It is the largest and most visible program in the Older Americans Act, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2015.

Yet, this is about a program where it is more than just a meal. One critical component of these nutrition programs is their inherent value to those they serve and to the American taxpayer. Meal recipients are able to remain independent in their homes and communities and are not forced into hospitals or nursing homes due to an inability to maintain a proper diet. In addition, for participants in the congregate program, the nutrition program provides a daily opportunity for socialization, preventing isolation and promoting health and well-being. The taxpayer benefits from savings to Medicare and Medicaid from recipients' better health. Further, it has been estimated that for the cost of one day in a hospital (often covered by Medicare), a senior could receive a year's worth of home delivered meals.

The President's budget points out other important benefits to investing in the nutrition programs. For example, many common chronic conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis can be effectively prevented and treated with proper nutrition. Older adults with multiple chronic conditions need healthy meals, access to lifestyle programs, and nutrition education and counseling to avoid serious medical care. Congregate and home delivered meals participants are significantly less healthy than older adults overall: data from ACL's National Survey of OAA Participants shows that about 57 percent of congregate and 72 percent of home delivered participants have five or more illnesses and conditions. About 32 percent of congregate and 51 percent of home-delivered participants take over six medications per day and some take as many as 30 medications. Access to meals is essential to allowing them to maintain stability.

In addition, the budget looks to the future for the Older Americans Act nutrition programs with a new initiative to modernize these programs. Using existing evidence-based examples, it is believed these best practice models can be replicated nationally. These best practices are increasingly important as boomers age into the OAA program, for which the eligibility age is 60. Boomers are different customers with new preferences in their meals, their locations, and their service delivery. In other words, innovations like OAA nutrition provider apps may be in our not-too-distant future, driven by modernization and a desire for convenience and efficiency -- and an example of an inexpensive way to entice boomers, as caregivers and recipients, into nutrition programs.

As Congress prepares to move its own budget process, it should embrace those proposals that constitute sound investments as compared to just expenditures. Older adults are an important resource to their families, their communities and their nation. Their health and well-being is enhanced with proper nutrition and social interaction -- hallmarks of the Older Americans Act and its nutrition programs. Let the funding of this Act be a bipartisan accomplishment that both sides can be proud of.