These friends meet at a restaurant for a weekly meal. They choose from a menu of nutritious foods. Butternut squash soup, anyone? As they dine, they chat, telling stories about families, voicing political thoughts, and discussing the news of the day. Not only bodies but minds and hearts of these senior citizens are fueled by the interaction. The gathering began as a result of a government social program that intends to keep older adults eating healthfully.
Such programs came into existence after COVID-19 pandemic restrictions required the temporary closure of both restaurants and senior center dining halls. Local organizations such as Meals on Wheels America connect government funds with seniors and local eateries. These groups use federal and state money that’s set aside to feed seniors. They work with struggling restaurants to create dietician-approved menus. Then the organizations help as needed to transport seniors to the restaurants. There, they not only dine but stem a loneliness epidemic.
According to information compiled by Meals on Wheels, one in four Americans is at least 60 years old. Many live on fixed incomes—limited funds from Social Security payments and retirement savings. One in two seniors living alone lacks the income to pay for basic needs, the data suggests. But concerns aren’t only financial.
“Isolation is the new pandemic,” says Jon Eriquezzo, president of Meals on Wheels of New Hampshire’s Hillsborough County. His group runs one such program. “Seeing somebody who’s homebound is helpful. But getting people out to do this—the mutual support—you can’t beat that.”
In May, the U.S. surgeon general reported that loneliness in the United States poses deadly health risks. (See Lonesome Living.) People, made in the image of a triune God, need community and fellowship to thrive. This use of public funds addresses more than the basic need for food. It provides for the emotional well-being of seniors as well. Additionally, it helps to perpetuate the livelihoods of the restauranteurs and staff that wait on the elders—many of whom spent years of their lives cooking for and otherwise serving other generations.
As of early 2023, at least 26 states saw food providers partnered locally with an agency or nonprofit such as Meals on Wheels.
Cyndee Williams owns the White Birch Eatery in Goffstown, New Hampshire. She appreciates the sense of community that has developed since she partnered with a food-insecurity program. “We get to see people and check in on them, and they bring new friends. And we get to meet all new faces,” Williams says. Plus, “We have a small profit margin. That helps us too.”
Why? Public (government) funds may sometimes be managed best when they are applied via creative solutions that address multiple needs at once.