Federal nutrition programs need to do more to help older adults, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office published Monday.
The government watchdog found that HHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture don't closely monitor nutrition programs for older adults, even though good nutrition is important for health outcomes and a chief objective of nutritional assistance programs. That's concerning because the U.S. population is aging quickly. One in five people will be at least 65 years old by 2030. Most seniors have one or more chronic health conditions like heart disease or diabetes.
Four of the six federal nutrition assistance programs require that state and local governments directly provide recipients with food. HHS and the USDA are supposed to monitor state meal programs to make sure that the meals they provide meet federal requirements, but they often don't.
"HHS does not gather information from states, such as approved menus, to confirm (compliance), and localities in two of the four selected states said state monitoring of menus was not occurring," the GAO said.
Meal and food providers are facing an uphill battle thanks to increasing demand for services and wide-ranging dietary needs caused by medical conditions such as diabetes or difficulty swallowing. State officials and providers also told the watchdog that they don't have the information they need to tackle seniors' dietary needs.
HHS intends to address the nutritional needs of older adults when it updates its nutrition guidelines, but it doesn't have a plan yet.
The watchdog recommended that HHS come up with a plan to address the dietary requirements of older adults during its update of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, improve its oversight of meal programs and make information about best practices for meal accommodations available online. The GAO also recommended that the USDA closely supervise adult daycare meal programs and share best practices among the state and local bodies that provide them.
HHS and the USDA basically agreed with the GAO's findings and recommendations.
But the USDA noted that a shortage of resources and existing regulations could make it difficult for the agency to implement the changes. It also noted that many state and local meal programs have a hard time keeping their staff intact, which might contribute to a lack of awareness about best practices, despite the agency's ongoing efforts to keep workers informed.