Seniors are some of the most vulnerable people when it comes to food insecurity. And they will make up more and more of the population in the coming years. To help seniors access healthy food, we need to find solutions now. 1
This is what makes the Meals on Wheels (MOW) Annual Conference and Expo so important. Our CEO Fred Laforge and Program Development Lead Onyii Ikem-Nwagwu attended the 2022 Conference Aug. 15 to 18 in Baltimore, MD to learn more about MOW and how the Farmers’ Truck can help seniors.
“MOW targets the aged population, and they are one of the most vulnerable to food insecurity,” says Onyii. “Conferences like this bring all stakeholders and members into the room to explore how the coalition could further expand its impact. The sum of the whole is always greater than its parts.”
There are five million Americans over the age of 65 living in poverty, and many of them live alone. 2 Access to affordable, healthy food is a real challenge due to poor mobility, lack of transportation, and financial constraints.
Meals on Wheels America supports more than 5,000 community-based programs dedicated to addressing senior isolation and hunger. Since 1974, Meals on Wheels America has hosted an annual conference to discuss meals and/or nutrition services for seniors. 3
The 2022 Meals on Wheels Annual Conference and Expo was once again held in person, after a virtual event the previous year.
“The more we talk about it, the more we socialize the challenges with food access and food insecurity. This creates more understanding, and funding becomes available,” explained Fred about the importance of the conference. “I think when we do these events and people get to talk with each other about their work and what they do, it makes a big difference. You all feel like-minded, that you all have a service in your heart. That rejuvenates your motivation and energy.”
Mobile market trucks are increasing fresh food access
The two-day conference featured various exhibits in food security, and the Farmers’ Truck booth gained plenty of attention. Our model of utilizing a mobile produce truck to deliver fresh, accessible food to communities was popular.
“The truck always illicit a wide-eyed reaction from people,” says Onyii. “The consensus is that it’s unique and has an appealing display that would draw people to it.”
When visiting the Farmers’ Truck booth, Fred said people quickly understood that we offer turn-key mobile produce market trucks. He said conference attendees saw this model as an opportunity to serve food deserts in their community and across the country. 4
“They really liked the concept, they understand the need in the community,” says Fred. “A lot of them were excited about this and are considering adding this as one of their programs.”
Driving change and connecting communities
Last year alone, the Farmers’ Truck provided 13 more organizations with mobile market trucks. This helped to empower 520,000 households across 10 states to access fresh, healthy food. 5 With the Farmers’ Truck extending its reach, Fred says many of the conference attendees had a connection with the Farmers’ Truck in their community.
“We talked to the chairperson of the Meals on Wheels board and she said she loves the Farmers’ Truck and thinks it’s a really cool concept. I asked, ‘where are you from?’ and she’s says, ‘Atlanta, Georgia’. And I said, ‘we have (a mobile produce market truck) there that we’re going to deliver soon to the Forsyth Farmers’ Market’. She said, ‘that’s right beside us and I go there every weekend’.
“So that was really cool to know that the chairperson of the organization will potentially see one of our mobile markets actively serving her community. And I think that’s great we’re having that kind of reach.”
Fred added that the more he spoke with visitors, the more they were drawn to the mission of the Farmers’ Truck as a social enterprise.
“We spent quite a bit of time talking about being a social enterprise and we exist for a social purpose and that drives our mission,” says Fred. “We want to do good…and it’s a new mindset. I think people had a lot of questions about that like how we make ends meet. So it was interesting to teach that a social enterprise is a thing that exists and there’s not just for profit or not-for-profit – it can be a little bit of both.”
A food insecurity solution for seniors
Mobile produce markets, also referred to as mobile farmers’ markets or mobile food pantries, offer a unique and effective approach to help seniors access healthy food. They mitigate some of the physical, psychological, and financial burdens that many seniors face. 6
“Most of (conference attendees) wanted to know how we could support the aged population through the Farmers’ Truck programs,” explained Onyii.
The idea is simple really: to bring affordable healthy food to where seniors live.
Mobile markets can provide a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) discount to clients, which includes seniors on a fixed income. Various mobile markets also provide food for free or charge a nominal fee to cover costs.
Access to fresh fruits and vegetables results in healthier lives, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. The act of cooking creates a sense of independence, and adds mental stimulation from using motor skills. The familiar smells and tastes can be associated with happy memories.
Mobile markets can also reduce social isolation. For some seniors, the regular visit to their mobile market acts as a social interaction. It helps them feel more whole with their community.
Food is medicine
Fred says his favorite presentation from the conference was by Meals on Wheels Maryland. They did a pilot study with 84 senior patients, ages 60 years or older, who had a prior hospitalization in the past 12 months.
The patients had a diagnosis of diabetes, hypertension, heart failure, and/or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. They were provided Meals on Wheels over 3 months of their transition back home, and the results were profound. 7
The primary outcome was a reduction of hospital costs. The total hospital expenditures while the cohort was in the transition program was $435,258 +- 113, 424. This was a decrease compared to $1,445,637 +- 325,433 of the cohort’s cost during the three months prior to enrolment.
“They did a partnership with one of the hospitals to help seniors access healthy food,” says Fred. “Just on diet alone, they saw a decrease in the cost of health care. It decreased by almost two-thirds…and that’s incredible.”
Bringing people together
Fred says annual conferences such as Meals on Wheels America are important to bring people together and work on solutions for food justice and food access. While each organization may have its own vision and mission, what is common to all is to bring healthy food to people who need it most.
“There were a lot of people there from everywhere in the U.S. So it was really great to see all these individuals and organizations doing that type of work and their passion behind it,” says Fred. “It was fun to see all the different backgrounds and motivations but they all kind of had the same vision when it comes to food access.”