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Meals on Wheels sees donations surge after Trump proposes funding cuts

By Avi Selk

March 19, 2017 at 9:41 AM

A woman moves a cooler holding her Meals on Wheels supplies as her golden retriever Tootie watches at her home in San Diego in 2013. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)

Senior citizens in one suburb could see Meals on Wheels deliveries cut in half if President Trump's budget cuts become reality, a spokeswoman for the network told CNN, as it anticipated "deep cuts" to a nonprofit that serves 2.4 million Americans.

But private donations have surged in response, a spokeswoman for the group told The Washington Post. The national office has taken in more than $100,000 since the White House announced plans to eliminate the Community Development Block Grant program on Thursday — compared with about $1,000 on a normal day.

While the block grants fund only a small portion of Meals on Wheels operations nationwide, spokeswoman Jenny Bertolette told CNN that some of the group's 5,000 local branches rely on the money to bring food to people.

A Meals on Wheels branch outside Detroit, she said, would lose one-third of its budget without the grants. The branch in San Jose would lose $100,000.

And the organization has speculated that Trump's vague budget outline also could slash the Older Americans Act, which it says funds more than one-third of Meals on Wheels operations across the United States.

"Federal funding is at risk," reads a banner ad that greets visitors to the nonprofit group's website. "Help us defend these vital services today."

Related: [Analysis | If you’re a poor person in America, Trump’s budget is not for you]

The actual effect of next year's budget on the program is unclear — in part because Trump's budget plan is thin on details.

The proposed elimination of the $3 billion block grant program would affect mostly housing programs, not food services.

But the White House also proposes cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees a more than $800 million annual program that props up Meals on Wheels operations nationwide.

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President Trump's proposed budget calls for cutting funding to Meals on Wheels, an organization that delivers meals to 2.4 million seniors nationwide. In Virginia, Maryland and D.C. about 70,000 seniors are served. (WUSA)

The budget outline doesn't say what would happen to Older Americans Act funding, leaving Meals on Wheels officials to worry and wonder.

Trump's proposals are still just that. Congressional members from both parties, who will decide the 2018 budget, have promised to protect the program.

The White House was "literally taking food away from seniors," said Rep. Linda T. Sánchez (D-Calif.), according to the Associated Press.

Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (R-Fla.) said he ran Meals on Wheels deliveries himself.

But defending its proposals, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the government "can't spend money on programs just because they sound good — and great."

Related: [Trump budget cuts: U.S. federal funding 2018]

Outside Washington, people across the country have been offering help to Meals on Wheels since the Trump budget outline was released, program executives told CNN.

Donations to the program's national office will be spent on advocacy and awareness campaigns, according to a spokeswoman.

The local branches that actually bring food to people have separate donations streams — but they've reported surges too, with money and volunteer sign-ups pouring in from Minneapolis to west Los Angeles.

"It's reassuring that the public has stepped up," the executive director of Meals on Wheels told CNN.

More reading:

Perspective | A day in the life of a poor American under Trump's proposed budget

Avi Selk is an American-Canadian nomad. He reported for the Dallas Morning News from 2009 until December 2016, when he joined the general assignment desk.

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