Meals on Wheels hit by sequestration cuts

Monday, May 13, 2013
Waterbury Republican-American
Waterbury, CT

Last year, more than 10,000 senior citizens in Connecticut received lunches and dinners five days a week through Meals on Wheels programs. Another 18,000 traveled to receive meals at congregate locations.

Now agencies are trying to continue serving all those people in the face of federal budget cuts, part of the across-the-board reductions known as sequestration.

"Any cut will be difficult," said Mary-Kate Gill, director of elder services programs at New Opportunities in Waterbury. "How do you deny someone something that they need when you're already giving it to them?"

In a weekly address last month, President Barack Obama called the sequestration cuts "reckless" and said, "There are seniors who depend on programs like Meals on Wheels to live independently looking for help." The White House has estimated 4 million fewer meals will be served nationwide.

Those who run senior nutrition programs here, however, say they do not yet know how much they will have to cut — only that they are bracing for the impact.

Senior nutrition programs in the state are funded through federal and state grants, sometimes supplemented by donations from participants and fundraising efforts.

Connecticut receives more than $16 million for programs providing nutrition and other care-giving functions for senior citizens under the Older Americans Act, according to the National Council on Aging. The council predicted the sequester would cut $1.3 million of that allocation, or 8.2 percent.

That translates to a cut of about $430,000 from the $5.2 million the state receives for congregate meals, and a $210,000 cut from the $2.6 million for home-delivered meals, according to the council.

Joel Sekorski, president of the Connecticut Association of Nutrition and Aging Service Providers and nutrition supervisor of the Litchfield Hills/Northwest Elderly Nutrition Program, said he has received no official word on cuts from the state Department of Social Services. The state administers the federal funding bundled with its own, and all of the state budget proposals call for an increase in senior nutrition funding because it is the least expensive option for seniors who can't feed themselves, Sekorski said.

"We are the most cost-effective program to keep seniors in their homes, as opposed to nursing homes or assisted-living facilities," Sekorski said.

With a budget of $1.6 million, the Litchfield County program serves more than 200,000 meals via Meals on Wheels in 18 towns, and about 40,000 congregate meals in 10 towns every year, Sekorski said. Based on the National Council on Aging's figures, the county could face a $35,000 cut from congregate meals and an $18,000 cut from Meals on Wheels, he said.

When making cuts, the first priority will be to save meals, Sekorski said. The second priority will be to save the agency's 26 part-time and four full-time employees.

Deliveries could be made three times a week instead of five, and include frozen or cold meals to get recipients through the other two days, Sekorski said. Checking in with the senior citizens daily, however, is an important part of the job, he said.

Routes could be consolidated, but then each route would take longer and federal law limits how long food can remain in the trucks, Sekorski said.

"Every idea has a complex answer to it that requires extensive policy change and disruption to the senior," he said.

New Opportunities, based in Waterbury, runs senior nutrition programs for the city and nine surrounding towns, Gill said. The agency has delivered almost 412,000 meals this year throughout the central Naugatuck Valley, and served nearly 66,000 congregate meals, she said.

Gill said the Western Connecticut Area Agency on Aging has told her to expect a 4.4 percent cut, but she has heard nothing officially. New Opportunities already serves more meals than grant funding allows, using fundraising and donations to make up the difference, she said. Municipalities are also asked to chip in, Gill added.

Meanwhile, gas prices have risen and the organization has made a number of cuts to improve efficiency, she said.

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