Seniors and the sequester

2/28/2013

Cuts could hit some area senior nutrition programs

Cuts could hit some area senior nutrition programs

By ANGIE HAFLICH

ahaflich@gctelegram.com

Through the Friendship Meals and Meals on Wheels programs, many seniors are able to eat what is, in many cases, the only balanced meal they will have each day. However, if the across-the-board budget cuts, or sequestration, become a reality on Friday, Kansas could lose approximately $209,000 in funds that provide these meals for seniors.

Among the programs that will feel the sting of sequestration are the Friendship Meals that are served at the Senior Center of Finney County and Meals on Wheels programs in other southwest Kansas communities.

Because the Finney County Meals on Wheels program receives no federal funding, it won't be impacted by the federal budget cuts.

"The Meals on Wheels program is funded through the county mill levy and grants and donations," said Patti Thummel, director of Finney County Meals on Wheels. "When the founders of the senior center set up Meals on Wheels way back, 41 years ago, this is how they set it up and it's been that way ever since."

The impact will, however, be felt by the Friendship Meals program at the Senior Center of Finney County.

"It's for older Kansans, 60 and above, and most of these people live in their own homes and we give them a good balanced meal that still allows them to stay in their own home, but it lets them get out and have camaraderie and come down and have a good, hot meal instead of needing to cook and worry about paying for groceries," Carol Wigner, nutrition site manager at the senior center, said.

Currently, the suggested donation is $3 per meal, but Wigner said the cut in funding could result in this going up.

"The majority of my people, their Social Security is their only income and I have some that their Social Security check is less than $500 a month," she said. "They wouldn't be able to afford a well-balanced meal and then your overall whole total health starts to fail, so it would definitely affect a lot of my people. It would also affect the nutrition program and the quality of the meals."

Currently, Friendship Meals are served Monday through Friday and Wigner said they feed an average of 65 to 70 people per day.

The Friendship Meals program is managed by Eldercare, Inc., Great Bend, which manages both the Friendship Meal and Meals on Wheels programs in 23 other southwest Kansas counties, including Wichita, Scott, Lane, Ness, Rush, Barton, Hamilton, Hodgeman, Pawnee, Stafford, Grant, Haskell, Gray, Ford, Edwards, Kiowa, Pratt, Barber, Comanche, Clark, Meade, Seward and Morton.

Of the total meals served in southwest Kansas, 65 percent are Friendship Meals and 35 percent are served to homebound seniors.

In 2012, between both programs, 410,457 meals were served in the 24 counties of southwest Kansas that Eldercare serves. Approximately 32 percent of Eldercare's funding comes from the federal government.

"An 8 percent cut is what we've been told to expect. Somewhere in that range," said Janet Splitter, executive director of Eldercare.

When asked how she anticipates the cut will affect the programs, Splitter said it is unclear, but the most recent estimate indicated that it could result in a loss of 3,600 meals per year.

"But we're anticipating it could be much higher. We thought our loss would be as high as 12,000 meals per year," Splitter said.

This is the equivalent of about 38 meals per day, or of one community in southwest Kansas. In 2012, 5,976 meals were served in Montezuma; 7,645 meals were served in Satanta; 17,099 meals were served in Scott City; 7,462 meals were served in Sublette; 10,408 meals were served in Syracuse; 30,735 meals were served in Ulysses; 8,673 meals were served in Dighton; and 5,827 meals were served in Cimarron.

"So we'll just try to keep serving everybody who comes through the doors. We've never had a waiting list, so that's not our intention, but as money gets tighter, we'll have to look at places where we need to trim," Splitter said.

She added that the actual price of the meal is $5 and the suggested donation of $3, which is valid only for those 60 and older, may need to be increased at some point, should the budget cuts take effect.

"That would be one route we would look at. If we cannot get enough federal and state money to cover this, then we'll ask our people to pay more," she said, adding that people in southwest Kansas are already generous with their contributions, which average $2.52 per meal.

"That $2.52 is remarkable when you compare what urban Meals on Wheels and senior center meal programs get. We're able to do a very good quality and very good standard because the people support us so well," Splitter said.

While raising the suggested donation isn't something Splitter wants to see happen, she said it is a better alternative than cutting the number of meals served, citing a recent experience in which an elderly woman told her that her the Friendship Meal, which consists of meat or fish, a starch, a vegetable, bread, desert and milk, is the only balanced meal she gets each day.

Wigner said many of the people served at the senior center are reliant on the nutrition they get from the daily meal, as well.

"I've had three or four women that have come who were anemic that weren't eating well enough on their own, so they were getting a good, balanced meal and it's better for their whole nutrition and everything," she said.

If the sequestration goes through on Friday, both Splitter and Wigner said they don't expect a subsequent increase in the suggested donation to take place immediately. "They think that it would maybe three to four months before we have to raise the rates," Wigner said.

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