Government, Health Care, and Nonprofits

Rocky road ahead for Meals on Wheels?

Proposed White House budget cuts could reduce funding by as much as $160,000, according to program’s director of operations.

March 24, 2017
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Meals on Wheels
A Meals on Wheels volunteer drops off food with a program participant. It costs Meals on Wheels approximately $1,250 annually to provide one meal to one senior citizen. Courtesy Meals on Wheels Western Michigan

Meals on Wheels Western Michigan is considering the possibility it will have to eliminate up to 37,000 meals for seniors if cuts in the White House budget released two weeks ago are realized.

The White House budget calls for a funding reduction of 17.9 percent for Health and Human Services.

Lisa Wideman, director of operations for Meals on Wheels Western Michigan, said Meals on Wheels receives funding through the Health and Human Services Department as part of the Older Americans Act.

“If that funding is cut, we are looking at close to at least a $140,000 or possibly as much as $160,000 reduction, and that is going to be significant and is going to impact our ability to prevent a waiting list,” Wideman said.

The annual operating budget for Meals on Wheels Western Michigan is $5 million.

The organization receives 67 percent of its funding through federal, state and the Kent County Senior millage allocation. The other 33 percent comes from fundraising efforts.

Wideman said the HHS funding cut equates to about a month of the organization’s current program budget.

In 2016, Meals on Wheels reported serving 5,686 unduplicated seniors through its programs.

It provided 488,249 meals via delivery to 2,562 homebound older adults as well as 88,759 lunches through its 18 dining sites, serving 1,496 seniors. It also provided over 1 million pounds of food to 1,922 seniors through its Senior Pantries.

Brewster Hamm, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels Western Michigan, said the majority of Meals on Wheels’ program budget goes toward its meal delivery service.

He said it costs Meals on Wheels approximately $1,250 a year per senior to provide a single meal a day and $2,500 to provide two meals per day to a senior. He compared that cost to the at least $48,000 he said seniors would have to spend annually to live in an assisted living or nursing facility if they can’t remain at home.

“Put that $1,250 against the cost of a nursing home or assisted living facility, which could be $4,000 to $8,000 a month for seniors,” Hamm said. “It doesn’t take long before their assets run out, and then we pay for that in our taxes to support them at the end of their life.”

Hamm said it makes economic sense to invest taxpayer dollars in Meals on Wheels.

He also said a study conducted by the national arm of Meals on Wheels found for every dollar invested there is a savings of $50.

The goal of Meals on Wheels is to help seniors remain in their homes by providing them with at least one nutritious meal a day.

“Everyone wants to be in their homes, that is where they will be happiest and have the most longevity,” Wideman said. “The business case is very compelling in terms of the dollar value that comes back for the small amount that is invested in delivering a meal to a senior.”

Wideman said nutrition also is an important component of lower hospital readmission rates, one of several indirect benefits resulting from Meals on Wheels programs.

“Without proper nutrition, the likelihood of them going back in increases exponentially,” she said.

The Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan also noted the importance of Meals on Wheels.

“Older adults and their caregivers have one less stressor in their lives when a nutritious meal is brought to their home,” said Jackie O’Connor, executive director of Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan.  “Discontinuing meals to these individuals puts them closer to requiring more intensive services or into a nursing facility. This costs taxpayers much more in the long run than the costs associated with Meals on Wheels.”

Hamm and Wideman said seniors served by Meals on Wheels are some of the most vulnerable in Kent County. Of its recipients, 81 percent are low income and 55 percent live alone.

Meals on Wheels conducts a needs assessment to determine the number of meals per day a recipient is eligible for, as well as the number of days per week they will receive meals.

A key factor used in determining need is how much support the individual has, such as whether they have family in the area who can shop or cook for them.

Wideman said it is not as simple as replacing Meals on Wheels’ services with TV dinners either; for one, because of the above mentioned accessibility, but also because meals provided by Meals on Wheels are healthier than prepackaged store-bought products.

“We provide a nutritiously balanced meal, with an entrée, veggies, fruit, milk and a grain,” she said.

Hamm said the timing of the potential federal funding cuts couldn’t be worse.

“We are the last program that should be cut. In fact, we should be receiving more funding because of the demographics of the baby boomers,” he said. “The number is going to double in the next 20 years.

“Just in Kent County, 5,000 people every year could potentially become eligible. We currently have 100,000 and that is going to grow to 200,000. The need is actually going to be ballooning.”

While the organization is fielding calls from scared seniors, Hamm said he is not panicking, yet.

“We aren’t panicking because it’s not a done deal, but we are very concerned that the White House would be thinking like this. Our program is well-managed, and it saves a ton of money for taxpayers. We’ve been in Kent County since 1984, and we continue to grow and have a great track record of having quality food for seniors.”

Meals on Wheels Western Michigan provides services to Allegan County as well, which it added this past fall. Those services also would be reduced if the HHS federal budget cuts pass.

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