Addressing food insecurity to improve oral and overall health outcomes for San Francisco's seniors

By Jim Oswald, director of marketing and communications, Meals on Wheels San Francisco

Food insecurity and lack of nutrition have a major impact on a person’s oral and overall health. Across all age groups, those facing low food security are more likely to have unmet dental care needs which can lead to infections, eating difficulties, and dental caries that cause tooth decay. Moreover, according to Meals on Wheels America’s Hunger in Older Adults report (2016), food insecurity is also linked to numerous chronic diseases in older adults. The report cites that approximately 60% of food-insecure seniors are likely to have congestive heart failure or a heart attack and are twice as likely to report gum disease and asthma.

One organization that has taken a stand against food insecurity by supporting oral and overall health among seniors is Meals on Wheels San Francisco (MOWSF)—a nonprofit dedicated to helping older San Franciscans thrive in their homes with independence and dignity.

Last year, MOWSF provided 2.4 million home-delivered meals to more than 5,200 homebound seniors to combat the recent increase in food insecurity, help fight dental and health-related complications, and keep seniors safe amid the pandemic.

One of the unique aspects of oral health for older adults is that many require special diets of softer foods due to mouth pain or tooth loss and more regular visits to a dentist. However, financial and mobility constraints mean seniors are not always able to receive the heightened care and attention they need.

To address this serious health problem, in 2019 MOWSF collaborated with Delta Dental to create a program that provided education and other resources to San Francisco's seniors and encouraged them to become more proactive about caring for their teeth and gums. Even though those efforts came to a momentary pause due to the pandemic, both organizations were able to further the mission of helping older adults improve their oral and overall health by providing home-delivered, nutritious meals that enable them to live independently in their homes.

During 2020, the number of seniors requesting home-delivered meals nearly tripled—the largest annual increase in need MOWSF has experienced in its 50-year history. With the support of organizations like the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation, MOWSF was able to meet the surge in demand and ease pandemic-related hunger for thousands of seniors in the Bay Area, like longtime Bayview residents Mary and Willie:

“The support for organizations like Meals on Wheels is more important than ever because it operates right here out of our neighborhood. I never thought that I was going to need it until I did,” said Mary, who, along with her husband Willie, has been receiving daily home-delivered meals from MOWSF for the past few years.

“We’re in our 80s now. Willie has Alzheimer's, and I am in treatment for cancer. I do love to cook; I do what I can. But I can't do much shopping anymore. Meals on Wheels is an excellent fallback for us and so many people.” You can read more about Mary and Willie's story here.

MOWSF is now serving 5,600 seniors with their meals program—a thousand more seniors than a year ago—as food security remains the number one need identified by seniors who contact the city of San Francisco's helpline for assistance.

As we focus on the quality and variety of our meal offerings, and the production of upwards of 10,000 to 13,000 meals daily, we are also keeping an eye on issues that matter to our senior clients and that help them thrive independently.  

To this end, we are excited to partner with Delta Dental to ensure that seniors receive nourishing meals and nutritional counseling from our registered dietitians. As Delta Dental launches a new 5-year initiative focusing on senior dental health, we will partner together to find innovative ways to help seniors receive quality dental care.

Through collaboration, MOWSF and Delta Dental plan to continue furthering their efforts to improve the health of older adults, and together, help keep seniors smiling.