Sunday Seniors: Loss of dessert a bitter reminder of sparse funding for Meals on Wheels

  • Freda Washburn, left, and Margaret Godfrey, both of Canaan, N.H., chat during their lunch at the Mascoma Area Senior Cener in Canaan, N.H., on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Starting in December the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council, which oversees the meal program at senior centers and Meals on Wheels meals and deliveries throughout Grafton County, is removing dessert from its menus. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Volunteers Karen Woodward,of Lebanon, N.H., left, and Sharon Otto, of Lebanon, pack pumpkin pie into Meals on Wheels bags at the Upper Valley Senior Center in Lebanon, on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Starting in December the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council which oversees the meals will now longer be serving dessert. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Assistant cook Karen Goings plates meals at the Mascoma Area Senior Center in Canaan, N.H., on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. The Grafton County Senior Citizens Council, which oversees the congregate meal program at senior centers and Meals on Wheels meals and deliveries throughout Grafton County, is removing dessert from its menus as of Dec. 1. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Volunteer Kim Patten waves goodbye to seniors leaving the Mascoma Area Senior Center in Canaan, N.H. on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, after a meal. Heading out to get the bus is Bill Gibbons, of Canaan and Margaret Godfrey, of Canaan. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Roger Robinson, of Canaan, N.H., takes a sip of his coffee during a meal at the Mascoma Area Senior Center in Canaan, on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Starting in December the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council which oversees the meals will now longer be serving dessert. Raymond Pare', left, is at the table with Robinson. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Sauchelli. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Calendar Editor
Published: 11/30/2019 10:24:31 PM

LEBANON — As of Sunday, lemon bars, chocolate cake and peach cobbler will no longer be on the menu for recipients of Meals on Wheels and congregate meals throughout Grafton County.

The Grafton County Senior Citizens Council has cut out the sweets in an effort to save money as demand for home-delivered meals outpaces federal and state funding.

“Overall, we served 20,763 meals in the state fiscal year that were not reimbursed,” said Kathleen Vasconcelos, executive director of the council, which distributes Meals on Wheels for residents in Grafton County.

The state contract — which ran from July 2018 through June of this year — provided funding for 111,087 meals. That left the council to come up with money for the $124,578 deficit that resulted from the unreimbursed meals. While some of the deficit was offset by contributions from towns, other nonprofit agencies and individual donations, the nonprofit had to dip into its reserve funds to cover the remaining amount.

Besides the 111,087 home-delivered meals, for which it received $666,522, the council also served 68,226 congregate meals at eight senior centers in Grafton County, for $409,356. The state reimburses $6 per meal, while each meal costs an average of $9. Sixty-five percent of the money comes from the state while 35% comes from the federal government.

The funding ran out for home-delivered meals in early May, Vasconcelos said. Originally, funding was set to expire in early March, but the agency was able to transfer some of its congregate meal funds to make up the difference. That, however, meant money for congregate meals ran out in early June, leaving the council to make up for that shortfall as well.

“These are needy people who should be supported,” said Larry Kelly, president of the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council Board of Directors. “People in this country shouldn’t be starving or going hungry.”

Dessert makes up 20 cents of the $9 meal cost. By eliminating dessert, the council will save $43,700 a year, Vasconcelos said.

“We need to look at ways to create revenue and cut expenses. We do not want to reduce services,” Vasconcelos said. Per its contract, the nonprofit cannot charge people for meals, she said. It asks for a $3 donation, but on average receives a 65-cent contribution per meal.

Homebound seniors age 60 and older (and younger adults with disabilities) qualify for Meals on Wheels. While some people receive the five-day-per-week meals for only a short duration — if they’re recovering from a hip replacement, for example — others stay on it for years. The senior citizens council delivers meals to residents throughout Grafton County and Plainfield in Sullivan County. They primarily rely on volunteers to deliver the meals each day.

While the numbers have fluctuated for the last decade, the largest increases have come in the last few years, Vasconcelos said, growing significantly from the 126,233 meals served in 2017.

While meal costs can vary month to month, since 2017 they have been around $9 per meal. While the reimbursement rate has slowly increased — reaching $6 in 2019 — it has not kept up with the demand, which is expected to further grow as the silver tsunami truly hits.

“We knew that we’d continue to see growth because of the aging population, but we didn’t anticipate it to be this much,” Vasconcelos said, adding that Littleton has seen the largest increase at 43% over the last two years.

In 2016, the council raised $349,000 from donations, but now it is now looking to raise $570,000 from various philanthropic sources. It also has put a sharper focus on grant writing.

“Our program has always been to provide meals to people who need that, and we’ve scraped to find ways to continue to do that when reimbursements run out,” Kelly said about the decision to cut dessert. “In a way, it’s small potatoes, but it’s something we can do without a negative consequence for our clients.”

The news is being announced through senior center newsletters and at the centers themselves. So far, the reaction has been mixed.

“I think people will be upset in the beginning, but I think people primarily come in for the entree and the dessert is just an added bonus,” said Jill Vahey, executive director of the Upper Valley Senior Center in Lebanon. “It’s more like people are here because it’s macaroni-and-cheese or liver-and-onion day.”

Grafton County is far from alone in seeing an increase in demand for Meals on Wheels in New Hampshire, or nationally. Of the 10 agencies in New Hampshire that provide home-delivered meals, seven of them served above their contract, Vasconcelos said. There is legislation in the works that would provide an additional $450,000 to the program, but it’s too soon for a prognosis. The Older Americans Act, which provides a portion of the federal funding, is also up for renewal, and while the House has recommended increased funding for Meals on Wheels programs, the version of the bill presented in the Senate calls for level funding.

“We don’t have year-over-year data by program, but nationally, Meals on Wheels is actually serving 21 million fewer meals than in 2005 because food, transportation and other costs have increased while funding remains stagnant,” Jenny Bertolette Young, vice president of communications for Meals on Wheels America, said in an email. “Some programs will cut back on (the) number of days they serve/deliver meals. Anything to avoid having to turn seniors away altogether, but with the rapidly growing demand for Meals on Wheels, unfortunately sometimes waitlists are necessary.”

During a recent survey of about 1,000 Meals on Wheels America member organizations, the nonprofit found that roughly half of all programs have a documented waitlist, with an average wait time of four months. About 13% of organizations have a yearlong waitlist.

“Most programs cite funding as the primary reason for their waitlist,” Young said. “The duration of the wait likely precludes many from signing up in the first place, so using waitlist size as a proxy for unmet need likely underrepresents that need significantly.”

(Meals on Wheels programs are run at a local level and are not governed by Meals on Wheels America, Young said.)

Strafford Nutrition & Meals on Wheels, which provides home-delivered meals in New Hampshire’s Strafford County, eliminated Wednesday deliveries about seven years ago because of funding costs. “The budget money is just not there,” said Jaymie Chagnon, executive director of the organization.

When Chagnon started in her role two years ago, the nonprofit was serving 800 home-delivered meals. Last year, they served 1,300.

“This year the numbers are going so high, I think we’re going to have to make efforts to curtail back,” she said.

On the chopping block may be the small percentage of clients who receive night meals.

Suzanne Demers, director of elder services for the Community Action Program Belknap-Merrimack Counties, said the nonprofit stopped delivering breakfast as part of its home-delivered meals program in an effort to address funding shortfalls.

“We had reached the capacity of our funding,” Demers said.

The agency includes dessert in its meals and is still delivering meals five days per week, but Demers said the agency might need to consider both options when looking at cost-saving measures. When she started in her role about a year ago, Demers said they were delivering 110 meals per day in Laconia, N.H., and that number has since jumped to 157. She expects it will hit 300 by June 2020.

“When we’re delivering the meal, it’s not just the meals. It’s the eyes on,” Demers said, reiterating a point of other Meals on Wheels providers: It’s not uncommon for a delivery driver to be the only person a recipient sees that day, and the driver or volunteer may help connect seniors with much-needed health or social services.

Demers also is pursuing additional fundraising opportunities, such as petitioning businesses to help with costs.

“While that town may be poor, a business may be able to say, ‘We can sponsor 10 people for a month,’ ” she said. “We’re trying to get creative.”

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




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