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White House Conference on Aging: Nutrition & Aging

ELLIE HOLLANDER: So Secretary Vilsack has
been kind enough to let me start but I do have one question, Secretary, where are the
armchairs? I mean I thought that there were supposed to be arms on the armchairs. [laughter] I just would like to really say first to the
president, the administration, to you, Nora, thank you so much for your leadership and
for the opportunity to be here to be part of such an important conversation, and a quick
shout out to the 600-plus watch parties that are happening right now. I’m so happy that
you’re participating. So I want to just spend a couple minutes talking
a little bit about the network, the senior nutrition network, which is made up of over
5,000 Meals on Wheels programs in every community across America. Large and small, urban, rural,
suburban, that are serving meals to people in need, in homes, and also in congregate
settings. And they do this for the sole purpose of ensuring that vulnerable seniors are able
to live at home as safely, as healthfully, and frankly as independently as they can for
as long as they can. What an altruistic and important thing to do. We talked about caregiving
earlier. We talked about people who volunteer. There are two million volunteers who make
this program run. But, I have to say that never in the history of this country has the
issue been more grave. It’s growing and it’s expensive because any trend will tell you
that we have one in six seniors or an increase of 65 percent of seniors since 2007 who are
food insecure and that’s kind of hard to believe in this nation, isn’t it? And many of them
aren’t here and we can’t see them, but we have to be their voices. Never in any place
in the country is that concern about food insecurity and isolation more acute than in
rural areas because there’s a larger proportion of seniors who are more poor and in greater
poverty, who have fewer options for transportation, and also less access to healthy food. It isn’t
uncommon for a Meals on Wheels volunteer to be driving upwards of 150 miles in a given
day on a route just to get to homebound vulnerable seniors who are waiting for that daily delivery
of a nutritious meal, a friendly smile, and a safety check, what we call more than just
a meal. But it doesn’t really matter where you live because the consequences of hunger
and isolation are felt everywhere. And so I thought we could just spend a couple of
minutes talking about you might be wondering why it is that the secretary is here, but
he has a lot to say about this and he contributes a lot to the many programs that the USD oversees. TOM VILSACK: Ellie, thanks very much, and
I certainly appreciate the opportunity to be here. I’m now going to get myself in serious
trouble at home. My wife, Christy, was one of those 10,000 people yesterday who enjoyed
a birthday and got to age 65. [laughter and applause] I can say that because I’m only 64. [laughter] But you know, she and I were talking about
this and this is not an issue that comes to me because I’m a secretary. It’s an issue
that I’ve been dealing with in my entire public life. As a mayor of a small town, I remember
very keenly establishing a retired senior volunteer program and much of the work that
was done by our SVP in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa was basically delivering those Meals on Wheels
and how important that was to allowing folks to have that sense of independence and connection
to a community and proper nutrition. As governor of a state with a senior population, the state
of Iowa, we established the Senior Living Trust, which was designed to provide resources
to allow people to live in their homes independently longer, and as Secretary of Agriculture, now
we look at this issue of nutrition and we frankly have a concern, and that is that today,
in terms of eligibility for SNAP, roughly 85 percent of those who are eligible for SNAP
participate in SNAP and that’s a great statistic. It’s improved since this president has been
elected. The problem is that only 42 percent of seniors who are eligible for SNAP participate;
9.6 million seniors are currently food insecure and just a little over 4 million actually
have access to the SNAP program. Now there are probably a lot of reasons for
that. Pride is probably one reason. It’s difficult sometimes for folks to be interviewed, to
re-certify, and do the application process, which is why during the course of the last
couple of years, we’ve found ways at USDA to improve the certification process and the
application process. But now we want to take it one step further.
We understand and appreciate the important role that SNAP plays in providing nutrition.
So what we want to do is we want to launch a pilot today in 20 areas across the country
with 20 governmental entities or non-profit entities like — ELLIE: I certainly — I hope so. Meals on
Wheels has got to be part of that — TOM: Absolutely, absolutely. And essentially
what we’re going to allow is the ability of SNAP benefits to be used to pay for Meals
on Wheels. It’s going to provide an opportunity, we believe — [applause] — provide an opportunity, we believe, to
expand that number by over a million people providing additional nutrition assistance
and help. And then you have to remember that of that 9.3 million, probably one-third of
those seniors also are dealing with a disability, which makes it even more difficult for them.
So this is an extraordinary opportunity for us to pilot in 20 different locations this
concept in the hopes that we can then significantly enlarge it over time so that it becomes part
and parcel to the snap program, and we think it’s going to be a tremendous opportunity,
a tremendous complement to what we do over at USDA. ELLIE: I think that’s so important because
one of the most important things that gets overlooked about the importance of senior
nutrition is that it contributes to helping people be far more healthy. We need to really
think about those who are food insecure and who are hungry actually, you know, there are
many more visits to the emergency room. We can avoid premature institutionalization.
We can reduce readmission rates. We can save a lot of money in Medicare and Medicaid costs.
So it not only makes sense socially, but it makes sense economically. And one of the great
programs that I think is also needing a big boost at this point in time are the senior
nutrition programs funded through the Older Americans Act, an act which definitely needs
to be reauthorized and is woefully underfunded because it has not kept pace with inflation
or need. So I think investing in that, reauthorizing that and the SNAP — Signature SNAP program
would be just a win-win-win. TOM: Well, there’s also an opportunity for
us to point out that there are 800,000 senior citizens who also benefit from the Senior
Farmers Market Program, which we operate at USDA. It’s another opportunity for us to increase
access to nutritious food. We also are engaged in a variety of investments and community
facilities in terms of facilities for seniors — a congregate meal location, for example.
Oftentimes, people don’t think of USDA as a department that provides housing, but we’re
currently engaged in that. And we’re deeply concerned — Ellie mentioned the poverty rate
in rural areas. It is higher than it is in urban and suburban areas. And it disproportionately
affects women, senior women. So this is an opportunity for us to save money,
to do right by seniors, to give them the sense of independence, to allow them access to more
nutritious food, to help save on healthcare expense, and allow folks to realize a quality
of life that we think is important. And as the president challenged all of us earlier
today, it is about making sure that this country lives up to its ideals, and taking care of
its senior citizens is certainly very consistent with that value system. ELLIE: Totally agree. And, as you pointed
out, USDA administers so many wonderful senior nutrition programs that meet people where
they are. I think it’s important for us to know that there’s a continuum of need and
we each will fall in different parts from those who are the most mobile — seniors who
are most mobile who, with some financial assistance and access, you know, can prepare their own
meals, can shop for groceries and so forth, to the middle section which, with a little
bit of help can socialize, exercise, and enjoy a nutritious meal together in a congregate
setting, to the folks who are the least mobile, who are homebound and don’t have the ability
to prepare a meal or to go shopping so that, you know, in essence, getting something to
them through, you know, through SNAP and through the Older Americans Act, Meals on Wheels-type
programs, I think is going to be able to, you know, flex — which I really compliment
you on — the ability to flex to meet different needs at different points in time in our lives. TOM: And not only is it an issue of people
who may be homebound, it’s also an issue of people who live in areas that are basically
food deserts. They may be able to go to the grocery store, but there may not be a grocery
store to go to. The ability to have food delivered and to be able to use their SNAP benefits
in that way will obviously expand access as well. And, again, if we can increase access,
if we can get that 42 percent up to the current national average of 85 percent, just think
how many millions of lives will be improved and how much better as a country we will be.
So, you know, it’s important for us to recognize nutrition. USDA is an integral partner with
Meals on Wheels, with HHS, and all of the wonderful organizations who are represented
here today. ELLIE: Sounds good to me. Female Speaker: I think in terms of what you’re
trying to offer, really a partnership with Meals on Wheels, if we can figure out how
to use those SNAP benefits for some frozen or shelf-stable meals — because that one
meal a day we know is really not enough for the people that we serve and trying to get
volunteers to deliver meals, you know, at dinnertime is a challenge. So, you know, there
are a lot of entities out there that I’m sure would love to partner with you in that simplification.
The administrative requirements around SNAP for older people, we’re deeply excited. A
whole bunch of us in the room would love to partner with you and figure out how to make
that a reality. In addition to that, we’d like to figure out
how to continue to work together to modernize our senior centers and really encourage them
to be more vibrant and places where people want to be, so — TOM: Two comments: One, on the senior centers,
remember that USDA in rural areas can invest in community facilities through grants and
through loans. So if there is an opportunity to upgrade a senior center in a rural area
and you’re trying to figure out where to get the resources, don’t forget USDA. You may
not think first and foremost about USDA, but we have resources — a lot of resources for
grants and loans for that type of opportunity, as well as equipping those senior facilities,
number one. Number two: In terms of flexibility, that’s why we are going to designate 20 different
areas. My hope would be that we tried multiple opportunities in multiple locations so we
can figure out what works best, so we go back to Congress and basically say, “This is working.
This is expanding access to a lot of folks. It’s what you want done with SNAP benefits.
It’s helping people stay healthier. It’s saving medical expense, et cetera. It’s saving a
nursing home expense because folks can live in their homes longer. It’s cost-effective.”
Once you can make that case, the flexibility, I think, basically makes its own case. So
one would hope that we would be flexible enough in what those 20 pilots look like, and then
we basically use this next year or so to really accumulate enough of a persuasive case that
we then make this a much more expansive and nationwide effort. All right? Female Speaker: Thank you so much. Thank you. [applause]

Randall Smitham