D.C. seniors eating lunch before the pandemic. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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D.C. has the highest rate of senior hunger in the nation when compared to states. Feeding America’s “State of Senior Hunger in America in 2019” report, released in August 2021, says 13.5 percent of seniors in the District were food insecure when data was collected. They lack consistent access to food they need to live healthy lives, and the isolating nature of the pandemic likely exacerbated the problem.

This statistic was too much for Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh to stomach. “I find it heartbreaking that we have the means, the enthusiasm, and the will but are doing so poorly,” she says. “Talk about heartbreaking. Seniors’ last years of life shouldn’t be spent not knowing where their next meal is coming from.” 

The number of senior Washingtonians is growing substantially, making issues like hunger more acute. “The State of Older Adults in the District of Columbia” report, prepared by the Office of the Budget Director, says D.C. had approximately 83,600 seniors in 2019 and that number could grow 24.4 percent by 2030.

Cheh assembled a working group of about 30 people who focus on improving senior food access and nutrition and held six meetings earlier this year. In addition to talking about strategies and solutions based on their collective experience, members discovered they’re working in silos. There’s an ongoing lack of awareness, communication, and organization among those trying to solve senior hunger. “There’s no coordination,” Cheh says. “There are gaps and redundancies. We need outreach and education.”

City Paper reported in depth on how senior hunger persists in the District despite a panoply of available programs in 2018. Not much has changed. Barriers like lack of transportation, poverty, physical injuries and illnesses, reduced cognition, depression, poor oral health, lack of mobility, complexity of application processes, and limited access to technology and the internet still stand between seniors and healthy meals. They may not know what meal programs, government support, and nutritional services, are available.

Recognizing that reaching local seniors is a complex challenge, Cheh introduced the “No Senior Hungry Omnibus Amendment Act of 2021” in October. Councilmembers Anita Bonds, Vince Gray, Janeese Lewis George, Charles Allen, Christina Henderson, Brooke Pinto, and Trayon White signed on as co-introducers.

In her introduction, Cheh explains that the bill isn’t looking to create new programs or agencies. It’s about maximizing what’s already in place through better coordination, data collection, and outreach. 

(Note the introduction says 14.3 percent of D.C. seniors are food insecure instead of 13.5 percent. The 14.3 percent figure is from the 2020 State of Senior Hunger report instead of the most recent version.)

The act first establishes centralized leadership for all of the senior programs in the city by creating a Senior Food Insecurity Task Force. It calls for at least six representatives from government agencies; four individuals from organizations serving seniors, including at least one registered dietitian nutritionist; a member of the Food Policy Council; and two local seniors currently receiving nutrition services or participating in nutrition programs. 

The Department of Aging and Community Living would steer the task force. DACL would also be responsible for implementing the act’s next two provisions—establishing both a Senior Food Security Plan and a Senior Communications Plan by July 2023.

The first plan looks at what services are currently available, identifies gaps and needs, recommends strategies for improving the nutrition and quality of meals, and streamlines program applications. The second plan is centered around getting the word out to even the most vulnerable and unplugged seniors and teaching them how to access services.

There are a few final provisions, which one member of the working group calls “low-hanging fruit” because they should take little effort and deliver a high reward. One increases SNAP participation by streamlining the application and recertification process for low-income seniors by requiring the Department of Human Services to adopt the Elderly Senior Application Project.

Another asks the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to identify all eligible adult day care facilities and enroll them in a federal program that provides reimbursements for nutritious meals and snacks consumed on site.

Finally, the act calls for the expansion of Medicaid’s EDP Waiver Program to include home-delivered meals. Only nine of the 50 states do not have the expanded waiver. 

Most of the provisions in the act will fall under DACL’s purview. City Paper asked the agency if they support the No Senior Hungry Act and whether they think they will need additional resources to carry out its mission if it’s funded and signed into law. A representative declined to answer questions about the legislation and sent this statement:

“DACL takes senior hunger very seriously, and we recognize it will require the support of the entire community. We acknowledge that such a multifaceted and complex issue demands a very thoughtful approach, which is why we’ve already started working with the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger in commissioning a study to understand the underlying drivers of senior hunger in the District. Combatting hunger in our communities is a top priority for the Mayor. She recently announced nearly $9 million in grants through the Food Access Fund to increase equitable access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food by securing grocery stores and restaurants, fast casual restaurants and other food access points in areas with low food access, with a focus on Wards 7 and 8.”

The act is now in the hands of At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds. She chairs the Council’s Housing and Executive Administration committee, which tackles senior issues. The next step is holding a public hearing. Cheh says she reached out to Bonds about scheduling a hearing weeks ago, but didn’t hear back until City Paper started asking questions.

“Most likely it would be in January,” Bonds says. “I’m not trying to be like some of my colleagues doing a hearing every other day. I’m trying to be a little more considerate. A subject like this lends itself to reaching out to the community and getting as many different voices that want to participate.”

She says she co-introduced the No Senior Hungry Act because senior hunger is an obvious issue in the community. “It’s been a real difficult task for us as a city and we know there’s a sizable senior population that seems to be disconnected,” she says. “We don’t hear from them through government channels.” 

Two members of the original working group—DC Greens food policy strategist Winnie R. Huston and Iona Senior Services’ senior nutrition program manager Rose Clifford—are eagerly awaiting the hearing and want to ensure a spectrum of seniors testify.

“A lot of seniors are intimidated to speak up, particularly to the government, for a number of reasons,” Huston says. Testimony from caretakers and others who work closely with seniors is therefore critical. “The thought is, ‘I’m already struggling, if I say my name and speak it will make it more difficult.'”

Huston knows there will be fiscal impact to implementing the No Senior Hungry Act, but she hopes that doesn’t hold up progress. “This is a time that we as a city need to think about our morals,” she says. “If we’re not going to invest in feeding seniors what are we doing? Seniors nowadays, they’re taking care of their kid’s kids, grand nieces and nephews, and their neighbors. People who have worked hard all of their lives.” 

She likes the No Senior Hungry Act because it doesn’t point fingers. “It asks everyone to take ownership of this issue,” Huston says. “It asks the government, agencies that interface with seniors, the nonprofit community, and seniors themselves to put their arms around this issue.”

“This legislation is really exciting if we can all pull it off and work together,” Clifford echoes. She’s been with Iona Senior Services for more than a decade and is a registered dietitian nutritionist. “It’s interesting that it took a pandemic to really draw attention to it, but action on this is really important.” 

Clifford emphasizes that addressing senior hunger requires a response that calls in licensed health professionals who are willing to provide follow-up and ongoing support to seniors with specific needs. “A lot of folks are interested and involved who have never worked on the front lines of what I call combat nutrition,” she says. “This is a form of war.” 

She worries when she hears people say seniors just need to go online to find resources. They might not have internet access or the ability to complete online applications. Clifford hopes the city expands the task force to include more seniors and more workers from organizations that have spent time on the ground addressing seniors’ nuanced needs. Income is just part of the equation.  

“My own mom, who has Alzheimer’s, lived up the street from me,” Clifford shares. “She had a dietician daughter who visited her often. But she was unable to prepare her own meals. Sticky notes like, ‘Mom, eat this sandwich at noon,’ don’t work. She lost 11 pounds one year because she’d forget to eat or see bananas and bread on the counter. She had plenty of food, but needed supervision. It gets complicated so not only do you need programs and services, but skilled clinicians in the field who can make assessments.” 

Clifford says the pandemic made feeding seniors even more difficult because congregate meals were cancelled to stop the spread of the virus. “During COVID it’s been a lot like flying the plane while building the plane and the wheels and wings are falling off,” Clifford says. “So much has changed in the food and nutrition space and this is just more change. I long for some stability so we can get to some kind of steady functioning state.”