Senior citizens could lose Meals on WheelsJeb Wllace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Meals on Wheels volunteer Brien Ducharme of Marshfield, right, delivers a warm meal to Casper Lyford, 92, recently in her Marshfield home.
MARSHFIELD — Lost in all the talk of tax increases, budget cuts, and the “fiscal cliff” are the potential victims of a congressional stalemate — including senior citizens.
According to the Leadership Council on Aging Organizations, the sequestration — automatic across-the-board spending cuts— that’s set to go into effect unless Congress acts by Jan. 1., will target the Older Americans Act. The act provides grants to states to help fund services like Meals on Wheels, as well as meals served at senior centers.
In a statement released in October, the coalition of national nonprofits serving older Americans, which includes the American Association of Retired Persons and the Alzheimer’s Association, said an estimated 17 million meals will be lost nationwide next year if the cuts go into effect.
“Any ‘savings’ from the sequester would pale in comparison to the added costs, resulting in premature nursing home placement for seniors who can no longer stay in their homes and communities because of reduced federal funding. Such cuts would also place greater financial strains on family caregivers and drive higher medical costs due to elders’ poorer nutrition and health, increased falls, and other avoidable crises,” the statement said.
Kathy Paquet knows this all too well. She is the nutrition and wellness coordinator at the Central Vermont Council on Aging, a local nonprofit that serves seniors in 54 towns around Central Vermont.
For just one of the services it provides, Paquet said her agency alone served over 2,000 seniors last year in the Meals on Wheels program and with meals provided at senior centers. There are six such agencies around Vermont.
Paquet’s agency does not handle the food programs directly. Instead, the agency contracts out the programs to local senior centers by paying for a portion of the meals. Paquet said a delivered meal costs between $7 and $8 each and her agency reimburses the senior centers $3.50 per meal. The rest of the meal is paid for by donations and fundraisers held by the senior centers.
She said if the sequestration cuts go through, her agency would have its federal funding reduced by 10 percent.
Because of the recession, Paquet said her agency has been level-funded for the past few years. If that happens again next year, the budget for the agency is expected to be around $4 million. Of that, $2.2 million would come from the federal government, with the remainder coming from state and local sources. The council, which Paquet says already needs to raise more money to compensate for the years of level-funding, would lose around $220,000 when sequestration goes into effect.
She cites an irony: Programs such as the new Affordable Care Act reflect a federal effort to promote good health among the citizenry, but forced budget cuts to programs like Meals on Wheels would do just the opposite.
“You are not going to have a well society, you are going to have a sick society,” she said, adding the fallout from such reductions is immeasurable.
“When someone is eating well, and is being checked on, that’s preventing something that can’t be counted.”
The biggest impact of the Meals on Wheels program may not be just the good nutrition it delivers.
Shirley Carter, a Marshfield resident, is in her 90s, and while her family lives nearby, she still appreciates the company the drivers for Meals on Wheels provide.
“It’s nice to know that somebody different is going to stop by,” Carter said while receiving her Friday meal at her home.
Paquet said that aspect of community-building is invaluable for seniors. The elderly build relationships with the delivery drivers, relationships they would not be able to form otherwise if they’re isolated at home.
“It motivates you to do something for yourself when you know someone is going to be checking on you,” she said.
Paquet said her agency has been proactive in trying to counteract the level funding, since food prices have been rising an average of three percent annually the past few years and the agency is not getting more funds to compensate.
In the past two years, for example, the council has received two grants from Wal-Mart totaling $92,500 and a grant from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters for $25,000. Those grants are meant to promote the consumption of locally produced foods.
Paquet said that for every menu that includes a locally grown food item, her agency can give an extra 30 cents per meal to the senior centers.
Wal-Mart has been criticized in the past for discouraging or eliminating small businesses because it can offer cheap prices that the local independent operations can’t compete with. Paquet said her agency did consider what the public perception might be when taking grant money from such a large corporation as Wal-Mart.
“Their practices aren’t perfect, they are a corporation and have to think about the bottom line, but I would rather take the money and use it for good than have it go to something else,” she said. “I’m going to use it to help the little guy.”
The agency is no stranger to taking money from controversial companies, as Paquet said it has received funds from the tobacco company Philip Morris in the past.
Paquet said the recently received grants were meant to help compensate just for the dollars lost through level-funding, not for a massive cut in federal support that sequestration would bring. The Older Americans Act was created in the 1960s as a way to supplement discretionary spending by local governments for seniors, Paquet said. It was the hope of the Act that local funds would take care of the majority of the costs, and if the act were to someday expire the programs would still endure.
While Paquet said that idea seemed practical then, now it just does not seem feasible in the Green Mountain State.
“I’m not sure that we could do it without federal funding,” she said. “There are just not enough people in Vermont.”
She gave the example of the Twin Valley Senior Center in Marshfield. That center serves the towns of Marshfield, Plainfield, Woodbury, Calais, East Montpelier and Cabot. If one person needs a meal in Woodbury, the trip can take an hour . Along with the increase in the cost of food, the cost of gas has also gone up, making a trip to Woodbury that much more expensive.
Paquet has recently seen the number of people using the Meals on Wheels program growing and those traveling to the meals provided at senior centers shrinking. To qualify for the program, someone has to be at least 60 years old and be living at home to receive the meals.
Paquet said more people in their 60s are using the program than in previous years, which she speculates may be because of a societal trend of today’s young seniors not having taken as good of care of themselves as their parents and grandparents did.
The recession and Tropical Storm Irene also saw an increase in the number of people using Meals on Wheels.
“We have pride in Vermont,” Paquet said. “A lot of older people, even in the flood times, said ‘I don’t need help. There is someone else who is worse off.’ But if you are hungry and you know there is help out there, you’ll ask for help.”
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