Increased costs due to Covid, Cuts in federal and state funding may force reduced services at Meals on Wheels
By Christine Perera
As a part-time resident assistant at an assisted living facility in my hometown of Boerne (TX), I have the pleasure of getting to know senior citizens. While at school, I look forward to summers spent reconnecting with residents at The Heritage Place. When I entered the facility this summer, however, things were different. Instead of a warm welcoming, all the residents were tucked away in their rooms. Social distancing policies made interactions between residents scarce and reconnection a luxury that many assisted living facilities can no longer afford.
Since COVID-19 broke out, everyone has made sacrifices. At the living facility, residents sacrificed communal dining experiences for meals taken in lonely rooms. I have helped with delivering such meals to residents, and there is one instance my mind often revisits. I pushed an old busser cart filled with trays of homemade tomato soup, and the tangy, comforting scent followed me down the long, carpeted hall. When I arrived at the first door, I balanced a tray in my arms and, as one hand lifted to knock on the door, the tray began to slip from the other. Hot soup spilled all over the floor, causing me to jump back in surprise. Luckily, I knew the kitchen had a large pot of soup on the stove. I didn’t bat an eye as I mopped up the mess and headed back to the kitchen for another bowl. Instead, I took comfort in knowing that such a small mistake could happen to anyone. As I learned more about senior hunger, this very thought developed into a source of worry.
Many people do not have the means to access another bowl of soup when they need it. My experience as an intern for the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty showed me that sometimes accidents, like dropping food, cause senior citizens with already limited food access to go hungry. Being unable to physically get more food can also have long-term health consequences.
Amidst the global pandemic, obstacles to food accessibility have become a larger problem than normal. This is especially true for home-bound senior citizens, who face new difficulties in accessing food due to the virus. While stay-at-home orders keep COVID-19 in check, they can also make trips to the grocery store a frightful task for those at increased risk of contracting severe cases of COVID-19. Because of the high risks, caring for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, is more important than ever before.
Meals on Wheels is a food aid program that delivers nutritious meals to senior citizens. The program also helps look after the in-home safety of participants, connect participants with their communities, and increase socialization. According to Debbie King, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels in Waco, volunteers are sometimes the only people participants interact with all day. While delivering meals, volunteers chat with seniors and take note of health issues they believe might indicate severe or life-threatening conditions. These health issues are then reported to worried family members, who may live far away and be unable to check on their loved ones themselves.
According to the More Than A Meal Comprehensive Network Study, in-home health assessments (safety checks), social opportunity, and nutritional access make Meals on Wheels an invaluable program. Many families take comfort in knowing they can rely on Meals on Wheels volunteers during these unprecedented times. Additionally, those who cannot afford care at a senior facility can receive aid at a fraction of the private and/or public cost. For reference, the average cost of board at a senior facility is $57,000/year, in comparison to Meals on Wheels participation, which costs the organization roughly $2,000/year per person (based on Texas data). Unfortunately, due to decreased funding and increased demand, Meals on Wheels in Waco may soon be unable to support all its participants.
Meal on Wheels is supported by federal and state grant programs. The recent elimination of federal grants that once funded Meals on Wheels have made program budgets tighten. A statement from Meals on Wheels America President and CEO Ellie Hollander revealed that among cut grants are the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Social Services Block Grant (SSBG).
Texans Feeding Texans is a grant that Waco’s Meals on Wheels chapter relies on, and Texans Feeding Texans is also at risk of losing funding. Texans Feeding Texans is a state grant funded by the Texas Department of Agriculture. The Texas State Department recently decreased the Texas Department of Agriculture’s budget by 5%, creating a loss of up to $1,400,000 during the current biennium. This budget cut means there is less money available to fund grant programs. When the Texas legislature evaluates the Texans Feeding Texans grant in 2021, the program risks reduced funding if not enough people advocate for it.
Meals on Wheels in Waco is also supported by local funders and volunteers. Many local healthcare providers and non-profit organizations sustain Meals on Wheels through fundraising and donations. Volunteers play a key role in getting the meals to Meals on Wheels participants. Because of COVID-19, people may feel reluctant to physically help their community members. Additionally, limited funds have presented obstacles in delivering meals to all program participants. Whereas the Waco chapter used to deliver food daily, King stated that local volunteers now visit with participants 3-5 times per week.
Since COVID-19 broke out in February, Meals on Wheels in Waco has experienced a 20% increase in participants. The national Meals on Wheels program had a 47% increase in participants since March. The program has spent more than originally planned to ensure meals are made and delivered per CDC health guidelines. To compensate for the unpredictability of food resources, King explained that Meals on Wheels in Waco also increased portion sizes by 30%. The extra costs of such care-inspired decisions and limited funds have increased net costs of delivering meals by 97% (according to a national Meals on Wheels Pulse survey). If the net costs of delivering meals remains so high, Meals on Wheels chapters may be unable to reach all participants at the same time that participants are more reliant on food accessibility assistance than ever.
The Waco community cannot afford to be complacent about senior hunger. Wacoans have a duty to get involved with our community so programs like Meals on Wheels get the funding and support they deserve. There are many ways you can get involved. Stay informed about local, state, and federal government and call your representatives to advocate for program funding through grants such as Texans Feeding Texans. Make time to deliver meals to vulnerable community members. Donate money to your local Meals on Wheels chapter to help senior citizens get the food they need. These actions will allow Meals on Wheels to access much needed supplies, deliver more meals, and conduct more safety checks. Please visit www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org (national organization) and www.mowwaco.org (Waco chapter) to contribute to or learn more about the Meals on Wheels program.
Christine Perera is a senior at Baylor University. She is an intern for the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. Christine is majoring in Professional Writing/Rhetoric and minoring in Philosophy. In her free time, she loves to read and take long walks with her dog.
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- Hollander, Ellie. STATEMENT ON PRESIDENT’S FISCAL YEAR 2020 BUDGET, 2019, www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org/learn-more/national/press-room/news/2019/03/11/statement-on-president-s-fiscal-year-2020-budget.
- King, Debbie. “Texans Feeding Texans.” Meals on Wheels Waco. 30 Sept. 2020, Online meeting.
- Meals on Wheels America. “A Story of Meals on Wheels in Communities Across the Country Study Summary.” More Than a Meal Comprehensive Network Study, 2019.
- NEW SURVEY DATA: MEALS ON WHEELS NATIONAL NETWORK CONTINUES TO FACE UNPRECEDENTED DEMAND AND RISING COSTS DUE TO COVID-19, 2020, www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org/learn-more/national/press-room/news/2020/08/12/new-survey-data-meals-on-wheels-national-network-continues-to-face-unprecedented-demand-and-rising-costs-due-to-covid-19.
- Perera, Christine S, and Debbie King. “Conversation About Meals on Wheels.” 29 Sept. 2020.