2017-03-24 / Front Page

Client: Meals on Wheels 'helps my nutrition'

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Local agency keeps eye on federal budget

SANFORD — After spells in and out of the hospital over two years, Kathy Widgley finally made the transition home. A retired nurse, she’d had two hip replacements, a pacemaker installed, and has several respiratory maladies, from asthma to COPD, that keep her short of breath.

She uses a walker to get around — she likes the one with the seat, so she can rest, if need be, she said Thursday.

Catholic Charities suggested Widgley might want to try Meals on Wheels. She signed up three or four years ago for the program that offers meals to homebound folks age 60 and older.

The meals are tasty, she said, and she's eating well.

“I eat better,” she said. “Having Meals on Wheels definitely improves my nutrition.”

Widgley is among 700 homebound seniors in York and Cumberland counties who receive meals through Southern Maine Agency on Aging.

When the news first surfaced last week that the Trump administration was proposing a cut to the program, congressional Republicans and Democrats protested.

According to a March 17 Associated Press story, the exact size of the cut is unknown, but White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the government "can't spend money on programs just because they sound good — and great."

"Meals on Wheels sounds great. Again, that's a state decision to fund that particular portion, to take the federal money and give it to the states, and say look, we want to give you money for programs that don't work," Mulvaney said.

Mulvaney's comments caused consternation at the Capitol and beyond. Lawmakers from both parties vowed to protect the program, which serves nearly a million meals per day nationwide through a network of more than 5,000 local programs, the AP said. Meals on Wheels serves more than 2.4 million older Americans each year, including more than 500,000 veterans.

At Southern Maine Agency on Aging, Nutrition Manager Jo Ann McPhee said the agency is keeping an eye on the issue.

‘We’re taking a wait and see approach,” said McPhee. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed. A lot of people really depend on these meals. We’re hoping our legislators will see the value Meals on Wheels has for the seniors and fight any decrease in our funding.”

Southern Maine Agency on Aging Chief Financial Officer Randy Davis said the agency received $538,292  from the federal government through the Older Americans Act specifically earmarked for home-delivered meals, for the fisccal year that ends Sept. 30. The agency’s overall nutrition program, which also includes congregate meals and a program that allows seniors to purchase tickets for restaurant meals at a set rate, is budgeted at $1.7 million.

Davis said besides the federal money specifically earmarked for home-delivered meals, the agency receives other federal funding, as well as state and grant funding and some money from municipalities — Biddeford, for example, last year earmarked $10,000 for the Meals on Wheels program from the federal Community Development Block Grant funds it receives.

As well, seniors and others donate to the program. There is no income eligibility for clients. The agency recommends a $3.50 per meal donation in order to keep the program going, but donations of all sizes are welcome and no one is turned away if unable to contribute at the recommended rate.

SMAA has already tightened its belt — McPhee said in October, the agency cut back actual deliveries from four days a week to two days — though seniors still receive a week’s worth of  fresh, flash-frozen meals. The meals are designed to be heated in a microwave. If a senior needs help, McPhee said, “warming crews” are sent out to help on the days when deliveries are not made. As well, the agency has a “phone pal” program for seniors who would like a daily call.

A measure proposed by Senators Angus King, I-Maine, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, which is separate from the issue surrounding the Trump administration’s proposed budget, could help Meals on Wheels volunteer drivers if passed.

They have introduced legislation that would promote volunteerism within meal delivery programs and help provide meals to more seniors across America.

“In a rural state like Maine, with an aging population, the demand for home-delivered meals for seniors continues to grow. That’s why it’s critical that the federal government update the tax code to reflect the challenges that volunteers face today in delivering those meals,” King said. “If we can lessen the financial burden that volunteers have to shoulder, then we can ensure they will want to continue delivering meals into the future and help seniors throughout the state receive the food they need.”

To help alleviate the financial pressure shouldered by volunteers, the federal government currently provides a charitable mileage rate tax reduction of 14 cents per mile — unchanged for two decades.

The "Deliver Act" proposed by King and Cornyn would increase the tax deduction for the charitable use of a passenger vehicle to deliver meals to homebound individuals who are elderly, disabled, frail, or at-risk to the standard business rate, currently 53.5 cents per mile. 

Sen. Susan Collins' spokeswoman Annie Clark said Collins is a staunch Meals on Wheels supporter.

“As the chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, Sen. Collins strongly supports nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels that keep older Americans healthy and independent," said Clark. "Last Congress, she cosponsored the Older Americans Act, which authorizes funding for home-delivered nutrition services."

Clark said Collins, as chairman of the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations subcommittee, has long championed the Community Development Block Grant program, which provides communities with the resources and flexibility to support vulnerable citizens as well as promote economic development.

Widgley, meanwhile, looks forward to receiving her meals and greeting the volunteers — like Willie Dumont — who delivered her meal package  on Thursday.

She said she was used to doing for herself, but her illnesses have made it difficult for her to prepare meals. She said she was eating more sandwiches or cheese and crackers than she should before Meals on Wheels, because she didn’t feel like making a complete meal.

Widgley said she's concerned about what will happen if the federal government does cut its support for the program — not so much for herself, but for other clients, who rely solely on Meals on Wheels for food.

“I’ll wait and see, but I can’t help but wonder,” she said.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or twells@journaltribune.com.

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