Budget Cuts Devastate Meals On Wheels: Enrollment Slashed, Services Cancelled

News & Politics

Congress recently passed a bill to undo furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) caused by sequestration, but it left cuts to many other programs intact, including Meals on Wheels. The program brings hot meals to homebound seniors and adults with disabilities, thus providing them with nutrition and helping many of them live independently.

Directors of Meals on Wheels programs across the country spoke with ThinkProgress about how they are coping with decreased funding. Some, like Meals on Wheels of Western Broome in New York, are private nonprofits that don’t rely on government funding and will therefore be shielded. But by and large, the heads of these programs described facing deep cuts after having already slimmed down in response to lean times over the past few years.

Contra Costa County, California: Meals on Wheels of Contra Costa will need to reduce its program by about 13 to 15 percent, which means it will reduce its current 1,500 delivered meals by 200 a day, treasurer A. Paul Kraintz told ThinkProgress. The program had already been struggling with cuts, and then “we get hit with a thousand dollar sequestration cut and it just shoved us over the cliff,” he said. As of May 1 it will freeze new enrollees to the program except for those in the most critical need who have no other means of getting a daily meal. The program usually adds about 50 people a month as vacancies occur, so it will reduce its rolls to a more sustainable level through attrition over three or four months.

If the picture doesn’t improve by next year it will have to consider cutting back on routes and staff. It also risks drying up its contingency fund in a year or two if funding isn’t restored. “And that’s a real problem because when you’re providing a service like this you should have a contingency fund,” he added.

The financial troubles at the Contra Costa program will simply mean a greater strain on other systems, he was quick to point out. “The health care system’s going to pay for this, no doubt about it,” he said.

Lamar County, Texas: The Lamar County Human Resources Council was told that it would no longer receive funding for Meals on Wheels services beginning May 1, executive director Tanteta Moore told ThinkProgress. The proposed plan is to run all of its programs through the end of May and then begin to implement cuts June 1. It does have a limited contingency fund to draw from and is also looking at bringing in grants and donations. After that, the program will turn to furloughing a staff that is already slim and cutting some services.

One such service that may be cut is transporting seniors to the community center, as Meals on Wheels takes precedence. Without it, elderly clients “will go without food,” she said. “This will impact their health. It will impact their quality of life.”

But shuttering any programs will have ripple effects. Its facilities are all donated space, but if it closes centers other organizations may take up residence. And the effects will be felt in the rest of the town. The county has a population of only about 50,000 people, 24 percent of which are over the age of 60, she said. If more of those older people have to move into homes it will mean an added cost on the health care system and lower taxes that they would otherwise have paid.

Broome County, New York: The Meals on Wheels program, part of Broome County government, is grappling with preliminary numbers that indicate a cut of about $10,000 to $12,000 from its budget. It currently serves 390 seniors every day, and it is currently “trying to be as creative as we can be” to avoid cutting services, as Kathleen Bunnel, Director of the Broome County Office for Aging, told ThinkProgress. But it will likely have to implement changes in May.

The biggest change may be the cancellation of personal care services, such as helping the elderly with laundry and housekeeping. “We will probably have to transfer some funds from that to home delivered meals,” she said. It is also considering changes to its menus and switching to cheaper options, talking to clients about the importance of their financial contributions to the meals, and possibly going so far as to only deliver four days a week with a frozen meal for the fifth to save on mileage costs.

The agency has already cut staff due to stagnant funding over past years that hasn’t kept up with increased costs, so “there’s no more staff to cut and still be able to operate,” she said. It has also already cut some home repair and mental health services this year.

“I’m happy that Congress did something with the FAA,” she said. “But people don’t know this story yet and this is important too.”

Rapid City, South Dakota: Although Western South Dakota Senior Services, Inc. doesn’t yet know what the exact impact will be, the likely figure seems to be a 4.79 percent cut, which would take $25,000 out of the program, director Marsha Murray told ThinkProgress. “The only thing that we can really do is try to raise more money,” she said.

There are few other options for the organization. It has already closed its doors in two rural communities that didn’t have enough participation to warrant the cost. “It’s really too bad, because they’re in remote areas and they’re more food insecure,” she noted. There are some other high cost communities that it may have to look at closing due to sequestration.

It has also already cut staff over the past several years, “to the point where we’re pretty much barebones,” she said, and no one has received a wage increase in four years. It won’t be able to use many more volunteers without hitting up against federal requirements. “I kind of feel like we’re up against the wall here,” she said.

Memphis, Tennessee: The Metropolitan Inteter-Faith Assocation (MIFA) still hasn’t received specific details but is anticipating a budget cut of between 4 and 5 percent, director James Seacat told ThinkProgress. The program serves 1,800 meals each weekday. Ahead of getting final word on how much it will have to cut, likely by July 1, it has asked each department to come up with a budget that trims 5 percent.

Depending on final figures, the program will consider a mix of cost savings and cuts to services, he said. But it’s already done a lot of “belt tightening” in expenses over the past six or seven years and there may not be much left to cut. “There’s just not a lot of fat really,” he said. Sequestration cuts come on top of already lean times. “It’s really a quadruple whammy for us,” he said, “with government funding being down, expenses including gas and food costs are up, the population who needs our services of course is growing, and private donations are either flat or in some instances declining.” But the need is huge: Tennessee is ranked fifth in the nation for senior hunger.

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