Sequester stalls Meals on Wheels programs

For almost 30 years, First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville has delivered 10 meals a week to homebound seniors who live nearby. But with the sequester leading to a reduction of federal funds next month, the church’s skeletal staff has come to a sad conclusion.

“We’re just going to have to close,’’ said Deanna Lesche, the treasurer for the church’s Meals on Wheels program. Its program used to receive $1,200 each quarter; it will now receive only $1,100 all year. That’s not even enough to pay the cook.

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Across the country, Meals on Wheels programs are slashing staff, reducing the number of meals delivered or shutting down. The programs receive money through the Older Americans Act, which is filtered through state governments, which divvy up the funds to local agencies based on factors such as size and levels of poverty.

Programs typically provide two hand-delivered meals a day; some make lunches for senior and community centers.

“These meals save me from doing so much work,” said Bruce Campbell, 81, a retired food-service manager and Hyattsville Meals on Wheels client who walks on a prosthetic leg. “Without it, I don’t know. I guess I’d cook for myself.”

Hyattsville’s service isn’t one of the multimillion dollar senior nutrition programs that put on lavish fundraisers. It is run by a 63-year-old church secretary and serves about a dozen clients, some of whom struggle to pay the $2.50 charge per meal. It illustrates the far-reaching consequences of the government impasse on Capitol Hill.

According to March 1 estimates, the sequester will result in a 5 percent decrease in Meals on Wheels programs in Maryland, Virginia and the District. Those cuts are slightly below the national average of 5.6 percent. Wealthier, urban areas fare better.

The cuts in the three jurisdictions threaten nearly 75,000 seniors, according to the Meals on Wheels Association of America. Officials in Montgomery County eliminated an empty position to fund programs until November, while officials in Fairfax County and the District have committed to use their coffers to make up for the loss.

“If this wasn’t happening, we could have used that money for more services,” said Sally White, executive director of Iona Senior Services, which delivers meals to seniors in Northwest Washington. “But you have to make do with what you have.”

Programs that feed seniors were suffering even before the sequester. Federal funding has flat-lined for years, while costs for food and gas have increased, said Jill Feasley, who directs the Meals on Wheels program in Takoma Park. It’s not unusual for programs to have waiting lists.

The organizations have found themselves trying to reimagine how they fund themselves. Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland, which serves 1,300 clients in Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties and Baltimore city, has reduced its staff by 5 percent and will deliver food one day less a week.

Other programs have considered serving only frozen meals, Feasley said. Some might hold fundraisers.

“I might need to buy more macaroni instead of meat,’’ she said. “But we can’t make people go hungry.”

The threat of food insecurity among seniors is real. Baby boomers are retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day, research shows. Meanwhile, the number of people older than 60 without regular access to food has grown to 4.8 million from 2.3 million a decade ago, surging during the recession.

About 6 percent of seniors in the District and Maryland are food insecure, research shows. In Virginia, that number is just less than 4 percent.

The conundrum has led to “one of the most devastating times since Meals on Wheels has existed,’’ said Ellie Hollander, president of the Meals on Wheels Association of America. The organization has been surveying its members, 43 of which are in the D.C. region, about how the sequester will affect them.

About 70 percent of responders to the national organization’s survey plan to reduce the number of meals they deliver, Hollander said. One in six is likely to close, such as the church program in Hyattsville.

In the church’s kitchen Thursday, Meals on Wheels volunteer Arnold Powell tried not to concentrate on the future. There was cream of chicken and rice with cornbread to deliver.

Also, interactions with volunteers deliver a spiritual nourishment. A volunteer might be the only face the client sees all day. It is important to smile.

“I’m going to miss doing this, and I think they’ll miss us,’’ Powell said as he drove through Hyattsville. A retired historian, the 73-year-old has volunteered for the program for 18 years. “We’ll talk, even if for five minutes.”

He handed food to an Lithuanian woman who speaks little English, wishing her a happy 91st birthday.

At another home, a familiar face waved Powell inside. Campbell, the retired food-service manager, has received meals for more than a decade.

“Has it been that long?” the volunteer asked. “You just lose track of time.”

Campbell spends most of his days at doctor’s appointments and watching episodes of “Pawn Stars.” He is diabetic and has a stomach ulcer; he’s losing his sight and has lost most of his hearing. He uses a walker, and if the program goes away, Campbell said, there was little chance he could stand comfortably over a stove.

“By cooking,’’ for myself, he clarified, “I mean TV dinners.”

 
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