As part of his sweeping budget cuts to social programs, President Donald Trump has suggested a $15.1 billion reduction across the board at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which provides funding for senior nutritional programs for 2,300 Franklin County residents.
One of those programs is Meals on Wheels, which serves, nearly 500 meals each day from senior centers in Washington, Union, St. Clair and Sullivan.
The proposed HHS budget for 2018 is $69 billion, which is 17.9 percent lower than this year.
Mary Schaefer, Mid-East Area Agency on Aging executive director, said she knows cuts are coming, she just doesn’t know from where, or how big they might be.
“Seventeen percent is a significant hit,” Schaefer said. “Of the $10 million in federal funds we receive, $6 million of it goes to senior centers. Between 80 and 85 percent of our meals are Meals on Wheels recipients.”
In some cases, federal funding for Meals on Wheels programs comes from $3 billion in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which are dispersed to the states each year and used to combat poverty.
Those grants are under the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Trump’s budget calls for a 13.2 percent decrease in 2017.
Schaefer said the agency she oversees does not use any block grant money for Meals on Wheels.
The majority of Meals on Wheels programs instead get their money through the Administration for Community Living, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services.
A yearly $227 million line item ensures the HHS money goes to nutrition services that are home delivered.
Trump’s proposed budget is not set in stone, since it still must be approved by Congress.
Schaefer said she and her staff are hopeful the cuts will be eliminated or at least limited.
“It’s still up in the air,” she said. “I encourage everyone to contact their legislators and tell them to vote against these cuts.”
Despite the impeding budget cuts, the number of seniors who use the program increases each year and if cuts are made Schaefer isn’t sure what will happen.
This week, senior centers in Washington, Union, Sullivan and St. Clair celebrated Champions Week to honor their faithful volunteers and raise awareness for the program with local business and political leaders delivering meals.
The program in Washington has been in service for about 35 years and in 2016, delivered about 80 meals per day to clients in Washington, New Haven and Berger.
There are some clients who have been receiving meals for five or six years, some who only get them for a week or two, and still others don’t know this program is available.
The program delivers only lunches Monday through Friday, but also offers frozen meal options for later home preparation.
Many of the clients have in-home caregivers who assist them with breakfasts and dinners as an alternative to living in a nursing home or assisted living facility. A lot of clients simply aren’t able to prepare the food themselves, or they are unable to stand for any period of time.
Meals are offered to seniors for a suggested donation of $4.
Last year, the St. Clair senior center was top in the county, serving 140 Meals on Wheels per day. Union served between 70 and 80 and the Sullivan senior center served about 40 clients daily.
Budget cuts at all funding levels and new nutritional guidelines requiring more servings of fruits, vegetables and grains have put a strain on the Meals on Wheels programs in the county.
The suggested cost of $4 per meal, is about half of what the meal actually costs to produce and deliver once staffing, transportation and supplies are taken into account.
Editor’s Note: The MEAAA Meals on Wheels program is not affiliated with the similar program administered through Mercy Hospital Washington, which is not federally funded.