6 Programs That Offer Free or Reduced-Cost Food for Seniors

A senior gets a meal from the Meals on Wheels program.
Photo courtesy of Meals on Wheels

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity for single adults in the United States aged 65 and older was 9.5% in 2021. That means around one in ten older adults who live alone struggled to put food on the table.

While food insecurity doesn’t mean your tummy is constantly rumbling, it does mean your nutrition intake is likely insufficient. As we age, our bodies may develop unique nutrition needs, so not consuming enough wholesome food as an older adult can be harmful.

If you’re a senior on a tight budget in retirement and don’t have much to spend on groceries, don’t panic. You can access free or reduced-cost food through various programs.

Programs That Offer Free Food for Seniors

With the rising cost of food, it can be tough to maintain a nutritious diet while staying on budget. However, living on a fixed income in retirement doesn’t mean you should sacrifice the quality of your food. Here are six benefits programs that could help you stay healthy and fit without breaking the bank.

Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program

If you’ve never heard of the USDA’s Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP), look into it. This program is funded by the Farm Bill to help limited-income seniors buy fresh, locally-grown produce at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs) at no cost.

According to the National Council on Aging, the SFMNP helps more than 800,000 low-income older adults purchase locally grown vegetables, fruits, herbs, etc., each year.

You must be at least 60 years old and have a household income of no more than 185% of the federal poverty income guidelines to be eligible. If you receive food stamps, you may automatically qualify for the program.

To apply for the SFMNP, first, identify the agency that administers the program in your state by visiting the USDA’s state agency contact map, then directly contact them for more details.

An elderly woman gets a free meal from the Meals on Wheels program.
Photo courtesy of Meals on Wheels

Meals On Wheels Program

Meals On Wheels, as its name suggests, is a program that provides nutritious meals to homebound individuals. Here’s how it works: Every day, a volunteer or staff member will show up at your home with a meal and perform a safety check to ensure you’re alive and well.

Meals On Wheels operates in nearly every community in the country through their network of over 5,000 independently-run local programs. To be eligible for the program, you must experience diminished mobility that makes it hard for you to shop for food, prepare meals, and socialize with others. While Meals On Wheels typically only serve adults older than 60, age requirements can vary depending on location.

If you’re interested in this program, head to Meals On Wheels’ homepage and input your zip code into the search bar to find the local program closest to you. Note that some Meals On Wheels programs may require a referral letter from a doctor, so contact your local program to get more details.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — more commonly known as food stamps — is a federal program that provides nutrition assistance to low-income individuals or families.

You must meet certain financial and non-financial requirements to be eligible. For example, your income must not exceed a certain amount, and you must be a U.S. citizen. But remember, because SNAP is a federal program administered by each individual state, eligibility requirements could vary depending on where you live.

To see if you’re eligible, contact your state agency by visiting your local SNAP office or calling their toll-free SNAP Information hotline. After submitting your application, your local SNAP office will process it and notify you whether or not you’re eligible for benefits within 30 days.

Once enrolled in SNAP, you’ll receive a monthly cash benefit amount — distributed via an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card — you can use to purchase healthy food items at participating grocery stores.

USDA Commodity Supplemental Food Program

Also known as the “Senior Food Box” program, the USDA Commodity Supplemental Food Program provides a monthly package of nutritious USDA Foods to eligible low-income older adults at no cost.

In a senior food box, you’ll typically find a variety of fruits and vegetables, beans, pasta, shelf-stable milk, canned meat, cheese, etc. While CSFP food packages don’t provide a complete diet, they still offer good sources of the nutrients that many older adults with limited budgets may lack.

To be eligible, you must be at least 60 years old and or have an income below 130% of the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines. Contact your state distributing agency (SDA) for more information on how to apply.

Local Food Banks

Though local food banks aren’t technically food assistance programs, they can still be an invaluable resource when you’re on a fixed income during your golden years. Local food banks are non-profit organizations that collect and distribute surplus food donated by supermarkets, restaurants, and other food providers.

Anyone in need can use one. While you most likely won’t need to provide proof of income or ID when you visit, you may be asked to provide your zip code and other household information for record keeping.

You can locate a local food bank closest to you by visiting Feeding America’s website and entering your ZIP code in the search bar.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is a federally funded program that helps low-income individuals and older adults put food on the table at no cost and directly supports community-based partners that feed people in need.

If you’re struggling to afford nutritious food with your fixed income in retirement, consider seeking assistance from TEFAP. Once you join the program, you can access TEFAP benefits by visiting a food shelf or by eating a meal at a soup kitchen or other congregate setting.

While TEFAP doesn’t have an official application form, you may need to fulfill certain criteria to benefit from the program, as every state has its own standards. Contact your State Distributing Agency to learn more.

A man waters his leafy greens in his garden.
Getty Images

Other Ways to Save Money On Groceries

Don’t worry if you’re not eligible for the programs listed above. Here are some other ways you can save money on groceries without sacrificing nutrition.

1.Buy in Bulk Whenever Possible

While buying in bulk might mean shelling out a big chunk of change upfront, the long-term savings are often worth it. So, next time you go grocery shopping, look for sales on bulk items like rice, pasta, and canned goods like beans. These items have a long shelf life and could be used in most recipes.

But remember, buying more of everything isn’t always the smartest choice, even if the discounts are irresistible. For example, it probably wouldn’t make sense to stock up on ten boxes of cherries just because they’re on sale.

2. Grow Your Own Food

Another creative way to save money on groceries is growing the food you regularly buy from the supermarket yourself. Some of the most easy-to-grow fruits and veggies include bell peppers, cabbage, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, blackberries, and zucchini.

But we get it. Starting your own food garden from scratch can be intimidating. One way to make your life easier as a beginner is to purchase an indoor gardening kit. These kits usually come with everything you need to get started, and it’s perfect for those who live in an apartment and don’t have a backyard.

3. Create A Meal Plan

Take some time each week to see what items you already have in your pantry and plan your next meals around those ingredients. Doing so will help you avoid unnecessary trips to the grocery store and accidentally buying food you already have at home.

Once you have a meal plan, it’ll be much less tempting to order food delivery or eat out since you already have everything you need at home to whip up a delicious and nutritious meal.

4. Use Coupons

If you’ve ever seen the TLC show “Extreme Couponing,” you know just how much money extreme coupon shoppers save on groceries.

Of course, you don’t have to dedicate your every waking moment to clipping coupons like those on the show. However, just incorporating a few coupons into your grocery routine can make a significant difference in your wallet over time. You can typically find coupons in newspapers, online, or through store loyalty programs.

5. Rethink Your Protein

If you’re struggling to keep your grocery budget under control, consider swapping out expensive meats like beef and chicken for more affordable proteins like beans, lentils, and tofu. These alternatives are not only cheaper but they are also packed with protein and other nutrients.

Plus, they can be used in a variety of recipes, from soups to salads. Just be sure to check with your doctor before changing your protein sources if you suffer from chronic health conditions that require you to carefully watch your diet.

You Can Still Eat Healthy on a Budget

By taking advantage of the various benefits programs available to older adults, you can enjoy nutritious and affordable meals and live your golden years to the fullest. And even if you don’t qualify for any of the programs we recommended, you can still save money on groceries by growing your own food, using coupons, meal planning, and buying in bulk. Remember, health is wealth. So don’t let your budget affect the quality of the food you consume.

Jamela Adam is a personal finance writer covering topics such as savings, investing, mortgages, student loans, and more. Her work has appeared in Forbes Advisor, Chime, U.S. News & World Report, RateGenius and GOBankingRates, among other publications.