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IU Northwest study reveals harm to seniors from nutrition program service cuts

SPEA students found former Meals on Wheels recipients lost unhealthy amounts of weight, felt insecure about their nutrition

Samuel Flint, Ph.D.

File Photo
Samuel Flint, Ph.D.

Indiana University Northwest graduate students from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) recently partnered with Meals on Wheels of Northwest Indiana (MOWNWI) to research the impact of nutrition program service cuts experienced by the Northwest Indiana senior population as a result of funding shortages. The service cuts affected 283 local, low-income seniors, roughly three-quarters of MOWNWI’s publicly-funded beneficiaries in Lake County. 

SPEA students found, just as MOWNWI administrators feared, the cuts have had a negative impact on senior nutrition. The results, which were published in the September issue of The South Shore Journal, showed that 35 percent of respondents had lost weight in the six months following service cuts, and 25 percent of respondents could be identified as being ‘food insecure,’ defined as having concerns of running out of food, or actually running out of food. 

Course director and SPEA Associate Director Samuel Flint, Ph.D. worked with his class of 22 students to develop and field a short survey to affected clients six months after the service cuts began. Thirty-four percent of those surveyed responded. 

“These survey findings are disturbing,” Flint said. “Our research indicates that the number of seniors who experienced benefit cuts had a rate of food insecurity four times greater than statewide and national prevalence rates among seniors.”

Flint also said, “The worst part of these budget cuts is that they are quite likely to harm seniors and end up costing the taxpayers even more. The link between poor nutrition and increased rates of senior hospitalizations and accelerated entrance into nursing homes is well documented. Cutting senior nutrition program funding is penny-wise and pound-foolish public policy.”

The first round of service reductions occurred in October 2010, followed by a second round in January 2011. The cuts were necessitated due to needs brought on by the recession and reduced federal funding. MOWNWI clients experienced either a decrease from five to three weekly home deliveries, or the elimination of their cold supper snacks, consisting of a sandwich, fruit and milk. 

“The study gave Meals on Wheels the quantitative data necessary to substantiate our subjective knowledge gained from our agency’s experience,” said Executive Director of MOWNWI Sandra Noe. 

Nutritional Deficiencies & Financial Consequences 

Additional survey results point to heightened senior nutritional deficiency risk factors associated with social isolation. Sixty-seven percent eat alone; 38 percent are unable to prepare a meal without help; and 71 percent of respondents do not have a daily caregiver. 

“We know that nutritionally-caused nursing home admissions can be averted with the standard MOWNWI five-day-per-week hot lunches and cold supper snacks,” Noe said. “The weekly cost to the state for full MOWNWI services for one senior is $29.50, and the statewide average Medicaid reimbursement rate for one week for a senior in a skilled nursing facility is $1,067. 

“This means the average cost to Indiana Medicaid for one nursing home patient would pay for full MOWNWI services for more than 36 seniors,” Noe added. 

Flint and the MOWNWI leadership believe that prior research coupled with the IU Northwest students’ recent survey, point to a call-to-action that budget cuts that lead to service cuts for community-based senior nutrition programs can have detrimental health and financial consequences. 

“We hope these findings will make public policymakers slow down and consider more carefully the harms that can come to safety-net program beneficiaries as they review options to reduce spending at the federal, state, and local levels,” Flint said. 

The SPEA students’ study, and the subsequent research paper co-authored by Flint and SPEA graduate students Fred Buckley and Erica Fizer, also point to the financial hardship and related health consequences that these service cuts have had on the MOWNWI clients. 

Several of those individuals whose meals were reduced to three weekly home deliveries volunteered to pay for the other two days at the subsidized rate, leaving them with less disposable income for other basic needs like medicine, utilities, and housing. 

The survey found that 57 percent of the seniors who sustained service cuts reside in a home with an annual income below $13,000. 

“Purchasing the food deliveries, even at a subsidized price, can cause financial hardships that have detrimental health consequences,” Flint said.

“As a non-profit, we strive to have the human and financial resources to answer the call and to feed those in need,” Noe said. “Until many of these issues are settled and current economic conditions change, our clients need our help.  We rely on the generous support from our community so we may offer and provide the meal service our clients and their families have come to expect from Meals on Wheels.” 

About the Survey 

The confidential survey was mailed on March 1, 2011 by MOWNWI to the 283 beneficiaries who sustained service cuts. Responses were returned to MOWNWI to ensure complete client privacy.

Survey questions were developed from a literature review of senior hunger, geriatric nutrition and dietary research, and an examination of prior surveys used to measure senior hunger risk factors by members of the IU Northwest Spring 2011 semester SPEA Management in the Nonprofit Sector class.

The survey instrument targeted nutrition, behavioral factors, social isolation, and food security based on their documented ties to overall geriatric health and the impact these factors have on maintaining the independence of individuals in the community as they advance in age. The survey also requested demographic information on age, gender, ethnicity, household size, and income.


Media Contact

Emily Banas
Office of Marketing and Communications

Charles Sheid
Office of Marketing and Communications

Related Links

School of Public and Environmental Affairs

Meals on Wheels of Northwest Indiana