COVID-19: How to Get Food Safely to Older Adults

Healthy, frozen and shelf-stable meals can address food insecurity now and in the future.

More than a month into the coronavirus crisis, many Medicare Advantage plans are assessing the current needs of their members and trying to find creative solutions to address them quickly. With shelter in place orders, social distancing guidelines and limited access to groceries and meals, food insecurity among older adults is not only on the rise, but with food banks overrun and people waiting in line for hours, it is clear that traditional safety net programs alone are not enough to address this growing problem.

Some progressive health plans acted quickly, taking a member-first approach to proactively identify members in need and support them with meal assistance. A growing number of health plans are now also seeking to identify solutions for their members experiencing food insecurity, both during the pandemic and over the long-term.

Food Insecurity Among Older Adults: COVID-19 Presents New Challenges

Seemingly overnight when COVID-19 hit the U.S., food insecurity became an even larger issue affecting low income seniors who already lacked basic access to healthy food and adequate nutrition on a daily basis, as well as the broader population of seniors.

According to a recent SilverSneakers® Pulse survey, 19% of respondents worry about having enough food to last, or about being able to get more and 12% are eating less to conserve food for the future.

Among the Medicare population, lack of access to healthy food is associated with four or more chronic health conditions, and symptoms of anxiety and depression, a September 2019 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found.

The reasons for the rise in food insecurity among older adults as a result of COVID are multi-faceted and complex.

For starters, with shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, and social distancing guidelines, grocery shopping—considered an essential activity—has become a risk for contracting the virus.

Particularly for lower income older adults and those on a fixed income, recommendations to stock up on 2 weeks of food and supplies are simply not affordable. Additionally, seniors have been disproportionally impacted by nationwide mass unemployment, resulting in loss of supplemental income they had relied on to cover basic expenses, such as groceries.

With increased demand and hoarding behaviors, affordable food staples like rice, pasta, beans, frozen vegetables and canned meats have been difficult to find consistently. Traditional safety net services such as food pantries, food banks and meal home delivery services have reported unprecedented increases but have been challenged to meet the growing needs due to systemic and infrastructure limits to scale fresh and hot food delivery. Plus, like restaurants, dining in at congregate meal sites is no longer an option.

Restaurant take-out and delivery are available, but they’re expensive and not always healthy. Additionally, while use of online ordering and grocery delivery services has increased significantly – 3 times as many members are using grocery delivery apps (Instacart, Amazon or local delivery), increasing from 28% to 87% in the last month.

For many seniors this is not an affordable or accessible option, especially for those who are less tech savvy or in rural areas where service is unavailable.  Further compounding the problem, many older adults may lack basic nutrition knowledge and/or cooking skills or have mobility issues, which makes preparing healthy meals challenging.

Frozen, Shelf-Stable Meal Delivery: A Nutritious, Safe Option

Although shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders will be lifted for the general population, many seniors will remain apprehensive about heading out. Further, there will likely be recommendations for vulnerable populations to avoid environments that can put them at risk. These older adults need both immediate and longer-term support to ensure they remain healthy at home.

According to our Pulse survey, only 2 to 3% of older adults consider their health plans a resource for meal assistance while 23% don’t know what resources are available. Whether proactively or reactively identifying members experiencing food insecurity, Medicare Advantage plans are well positioned to support their members with meal delivery and referral to safe options.

As Medicare Advantage plans have been seeking safe home-delivered nutrition solutions for their members, many are leveraging existing partnerships and establishing new vendor relationships. When considering nutrition vendors, health plans must consider logistics such as inventory availability, contactless and scalable delivery capacity, geographic service areas, and the ability to respond quickly. Something else to consider is leveraging a vendor who has experience working with older adults, and who makes meals available for direct purchase as a potential sustainable solution for some members.

Nutrition offerings are a key consideration, with frozen and shelf-stable meals proven to not only provide the healthy nutrition older adults need, but also may be stored for an extended time periods, ensuring that the senior has meals on hand for when they need them.

In early March, we launched a pilot program with Humana to provide meals to food insecure seniors. Now that the issue has been compounded by COVID-19, member feedback has been positive— members appreciate having a choice of healthy foods that’s consistent and safe.

Through our Wisely Well, Nutrisystem, and South Beach brands, we are partnering with Medicare Advantage plans to provide nutritious, single serving prepared meals delivered safely to their door. The breadth of our portfolio allows us to meet a range of nutrition needs, with both complete full meals and lower calorie offerings combined with shakes or snacks to support smaller appetites.  We are also partnering with area agencies on aging and community-based senior nutrition programs to provide bulk shipments and to-go bags of healthy meals to local area seniors in need.

At Tivity Health, we are on a mission to impact key social determinants of health and revolutionize a new approach to health and wellness.
To learn more about our solutions for Medicare Advantage plans, contact us today.