More cash sought for struggling Meals on Wheels program

  • Judith Parrott, of White River Junction, Vt., organizes Meals on Wheels bags at the Upper Valley Senior Center in Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. The Grafton County Senior Citizens Council which oversees the meals will no longer be serving dessert starting in December 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/3/2019 10:15:30 PM
Modified: 12/3/2019 10:28:52 PM

LEBANON — Senior advocates are hoping to increase reimbursements for Meals on Wheels programs after the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council cut dessert from its home-delivered and congregate meals this month because of increased demand that led to a funding shortfall.

“I think an increase in funding is justified given the current state that we’re in, so we’ll be reviewing the numbers as we put together the application for (next year),” Kathleen Vasconcelos, executive director of the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council, said of her application for county funding to social-service agencies.

The nonprofit made the decision to cut dessert from its menus after it had to dip into its reserve funds to help offset a $124,578 shortfall from the fiscal year, that ended June 30.

Meals cost an average of $9 and the state reimburses $6 per meal. The council ran out of funding for home-delivered meals in early May.

By eliminating dessert, it is set to save $43,000, Vasconcelos said.

As of October, the council is on pace for another funding shortfall.

“I think it’s safe to say that at the rate that we’re serving right now we will over-serve our contract once again,” Vasconcelos said.

State Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover, said that one reason for the increase in home-delivered meals is the emphasis that has been put on “aging in place” programs.

“There’s been a push from the state and the county to try to keep people in their homes longer,” said Nordgren, a longtime member of the House Finance Committee. “It’s really the increase in the number of people requiring the services rather than any funding issue.”

But the loss of chocolate cake, lemon bars and other desserts isn’t sitting well with Canaan resident Freda Washburn, a senior citizen who eats lunch at the Mascoma Area Senior Center in Canaan a couple of times a month.

“I think it’s exaggerated,” Washburn said. “We’ve had funding shortages before so why now is this cutting it out? I think they could make the cuts somewhere else without harming anyone and be able to keep that.”

Washburn, who said she inherited her sweet tooth from her grandfather and likes to finish each meal with something sweet, said dessert will be missed.

“The folks that I’ve talked to are just upset that it’s happening,” Washburn said. “They’re going to miss it. They’re used to it and that’s what they like.”

In the past fiscal year, the senior citizens council served 111,087 home-delivered meals, for which it received $666,522 in state and federal funding, and 68,226 congregate meals at eight senior centers in Grafton County, receiving $409,356, according to Vasconcelos.

Along with federal and state funding, the council received $120,843 from Grafton County, according to Linda Lauer, chairwoman of the Grafton County Commissioners. Of that money, $51,183 was for nutrition, which Meals on Wheels and congregate meals fall under. The council also gets some funding from the towns it serves.

“At this point they are able to still provide basic meals, they’re just cutting dessert,” Lauer said. “The reality I have to keep in mind when I’m trying to come up with a budget (is) that the same people who need these services are also the same people that need to pay the increase in taxes. If I raise the budget I’m hurting them too.”

“I would like to see the state and the federal government contribute more,” Lauer said. “I think our senior citizens council does a tremendous job and I truly believe that they are running it as efficiently as they can. I don’t think it’s a case of bad management. I think it’s a case of too little money. Funding is too low for what they’re tasked to do.”

Each of the 10 agencies that provide home-delivered meals in New Hampshire have separate funding contracts with the state. However, the agencies are working together to request an additional $450,000 through a bill that is set to be introduced in the next legislative session.

State Rep. Polly Campion, a Hanover Democrat who sits on the House and Human Services Oversight Committee, said that she supports the bill.

“The challenge is always that we have such limited revenue services that there are always more needs than there is revenue to address them. I think it’s a bipartisan issue. People recognize there’s a need and that the need is growing” Campion said. “I think it would be wonderful for the federal funding to be increased.”

During the last fiscal year, more than $7.3 million was given to home-delivered meal programs in New Hampshire. Almost $2.3 million was contributed by the state as part of its mandated share, said Wendi Aultman, bureau chief for the Bureau of Elderly and Adult Services.

“We don’t have a state allocation above and beyond what we’re required to above our federal requirements,” Aultman said. “We are awarded a specific amount of money and we’re capped at the amount. We can only award contracts to those agencies based on what we get from federal money.”

There are concerns that funding is not keeping pace with the aging population and the agency is looking to see how other states supplement the funding that they get from the federal government.

“The state is happy to work with the providers to work with federal and county officials to see what additional funding streams may be available to ensure the needs of the program are met as well as healthy outcomes for those served,” Ben Vihstadt, the spokesman for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, said via email.

Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, who is hoping to challenge Sununu next year if he wins his party’s nomination, called on the governor to come up with the funding.

“When I was a legal aid attorney at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, I worked with seniors on fixed incomes who relied heavily on Meals on Wheels so it’s disappointing to hear of these cuts in advance of the holidays,” Feltes said in a statement. “The state allocates funds in the budget for Meals on Wheels and during the budget process the Legislature met the needs requested by Health and Human Services and the Sununu administration. The need for cuts just two months after the budget agreement continues a troubling trend of mismanagement from the Sununu administration.”

Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, a Concord Democrat who is also running for governor, said the Meals on Wheels funding shortfall is indicative of a larger issue facing the state.

“While losing dessert may seem to be a small problem, it’s the tip of a much bigger one,” Volinsky said in an email. “That is, New Hampshire hasn’t planned adequately to care for our aging population. We see it at the Governor and Council level in terms of insufficient funds for public transit and lowest in the nation Medicaid rates which overburdens our county nursing homes. We need a new approach to state government that recognizes our responsibilities and addresses them.”

In addition to advocating for more funding from Concord, the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council is looking to raise $570,000 from various philanthropic sources.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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