Thursday, November 27, 2014

Sequester feeds into existing challenges for meals program

By ABBY ECKEL, Herald Staff Writer | 8/2/2013

Having a daily meal delivered helps Robert Hiatt in more ways than one, he said, but recent budget cuts could put Hiatt and other senior citizens in jeopardy of losing their independence.

Hiatt, rural Ottawa, said he’s been receiving a meal a day from Mid-America Nutrition Program’s Meals on Wheels for the past four months since his stroke.

Having a daily meal delivered helps Robert Hiatt in more ways than one, he said, but recent budget cuts could put Hiatt and other senior citizens in jeopardy of losing their independence.

Hiatt, rural Ottawa, said he’s been receiving a meal a day from Mid-America Nutrition Program’s Meals on Wheels for the past four months since his stroke.

“It helps not having to cook a meal because I’ve only got one good arm,” Hiatt said. “I do OK cooking breakfast, but it’s nice having a noon meal delivered.”

Cutbacks related to the sequester — a group of federal spending cuts that took effect in March — have forced many Meals on Wheels distributors, like the Mid-America Nutrition Program to find new ways of funding, Sharon Geiss, Mid-America Nutrition executive director, said.

“Unlike some of the other programs that feed people, senior nutrition was not exempted from sequestration,” she said. “The issue for Mid-America Nutrition is not so much as the change in funding due to sequestration, the issue with Mid-America Nutrition had been building over the years because federal and state funding has not kept track with inflation.”

Like many other departments and programs in the county, Mid-America Nutrition needs an increase in funding, Geiss said, but she couldn’t ask counties for an increase in next year’s budget.

“I made the decision not to ask our counties for additional funding for 2014,” she said. “Our counties are like anybody else and are trying to hold the line on funding increases.”

OUTSIDE THE BOX

Mid-America Nutrition serves Franklin, Linn, Osage, Anderson, Miami and Coffey counties, she said. Not asking for more funding has led the program to think outside the box, she said.

“What we’re doing is something proactive,” Geiss said. “Mid-America is reaching out to churches to consider us as a mission they’d support.”

When Meals on Wheels was first started, it was started in large part by churches and many current volunteers come from churches in the counties, she said.

“We’ve had very positive response to the requests,” she said. “However, it takes awhile to reach out to many churches, and we have a very small staff and it’s taking awhile to accomplish that.”

Along with reaching out to churches, Geiss said Mid-America Nutrition hopes to hire a company to manage the program’s kitchen and transportation department, she said.

“We pay drivers to take meals from Ottawa to sites throughout our service area,” she said. “We’re hoping a company will manage our kitchen, supply cooks to buy the food, cook the food and distribute it at a lesser cost than we can do it in house.”

HARSH SIDE EFFECTS

Cuts in funding because of the sequester have taken their toll on Mid-America Nutrition, Geiss said. Not only does it effect the staff, but more importantly it effects seniors, she said.

“We had to lay off one person in the kitchen and had to reduce delivery in rural areas primarily,” she said. “We have locations in the rural area where you can only get one hot meal and the remainder of meals frozen because it saves on delivery costs.”

Mid-America Nutrition now provides about 850 meals to senior centers and seniors at home, Geiss said. For delivering meals in town, Geiss said, she uses volunteers who pay for their own vehicle and gas.

“Fuel costs have gone up,” she said. “Food costs have gone up significantly the past few years, but funding costs do not [go up].”

The cuts have made things so difficult, Geiss said, she’s had to turn seniors away from receiving meals because they live too far away.

“We had a referral for somebody east of Overbrook and we had to say, ‘No, we cant deliver a meal there,’” she said. “Our resources are stretched to the max and we just can’t do that.”

KEEPING SENIORS AT HOME

Providing meals to seniors not only gives them the necessary nutrition they need, but it also helps seniors stay independent so they can live where they choose, Geiss said.

“We have lots of people in east central Kansas who live on a farm,” she said. “That’s where they want to stay, and we’re committed to helping them remain independent in their own home.”

Geiss said programs like Meals on Wheels not only deserve and need more funding, but that these programs help keep seniors out of nursing homes, which ultimately saves taxpayers money.

“As most people are well aware, when someone goes into a nursing home, they may pay for that themselves, but if they live long enough, they’ll end up on Medicaid and we pay for Medicaid with our taxes,” she said. “If we keep people in their homes, they’re not in a nursing home and a nutritious meal is an economic way to do that.”

Mid-America Nutrition asks participants who receive meals to donate at least $3 to help pay for the meals they receive, Geiss said, but they’ll never be turned away if they can’t make a donation.

“I think that when you talk to the legislature, they agree that if you keep people in their homes, it’s more cost effective in the long run,” she said. “But even though Mid-America Nutrition is a not-for-profit, we have to cover costs and we’re not doing that.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

Reaching out to churches has been a small success so far, Geiss said. Recently, Christ Our Savior Lutheran, 5 S. Eighth St., Louisburg, had a benefit dinner and auction to help Mid-America Nutrition.

“We planned a dinner and a pie auction, that was held on June 22 at Legion Hall,” Beth Ramsey, church member and coordinator of the event, said. “Members of the church did everything. Meat was barbecued and smoked by a gentleman, and one gal did cooking for the rest of the food. We had a good time and we raised $3,825.”

Ramsey is a member of Mid-America Nutrition’s board of directors representing Miami County, she said. Ramsey said she wants to help the program because it’s always in need of help.

“Meals on Wheels is pretty much always in the hole in most communities for various reasons,” she said. “We just feel that it’s an important aspect of community life that seniors who don’t get out much or can’t get out at all have adequate nutrition.”

Delivering meals to seniors serves more purpose than just delivering nutritious meals, Ramsey said.

“It serves as a social contact too for some of these folks because the volunteers are the only people they see all week,” she said. “We can do safety checks on these folks and make sure they’re OK. We’ve had instances where some folks weren’t OK.”

Mid-America Nutrition is hoping to have more events like the one at Christ Our Savior Lutheran, Ramsey said, but the board of directors also is working on another project to help seniors receive meals.

“One project is to try to identify seniors who need this service,” she said. “It’s not as easy as it sounds. We know there are other people who need food and don’t cook, and we’re looking for ways to find those folks and get them on the program.”

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