Since President Trump’s budget proposal was announced last month, the local Meals on Wheels program heard from numerous people who feared it faced potential cuts.
The good news is the two streams of federal funding it does get, which represents about 20 percent of its total resources, come from two programs that are not targeted for cuts in the Trump budget.
According to USA Today, “Trump's budget calls for the elimination of one program that some of the nation's 5,000 Meals on Wheels groups rely on: Community development block grants, a $3 billion program that started in the Ford administration to give states and cities more flexibility in how they combat poverty.”
But according to Denise Patton, director of the local Meals on Wheels program, her funding comes not from block grants but through the federal Older Americans Act (OAA) and a small pot of money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Dalles Meals on Wheels gets $32,000 from the OAA funding stream. The USDA funding amounts to 65 cents per meal, or about $17,000.
Last year, the Meals on Wheels served over 40,000 meals, and the OAA funding amounted to less than a dollar per meal, Patton said. “I have to make up the rest.”
And by the rest, she means another seven dollars per meal. The total budget for the program is about $300,000 a year.
Both funding streams pass through the Mid-Columbia Council of Governments (MCCOG)
Caroline Wood, director of the Area Agency on Aging at MCCOG, said the programs that fund the local meal program are called “titled programs.”
Such programs do not fall under the discretionary funding that Trump has targeted for cuts in his budget.
“Right now, they’re talking about the discretionary funding and that is not something that my agency deals with,” Wood said.
Since the Trump budget was proposed, Patton said she’s mostly hearing concerns from the adult children of the seniors who receive the meals. “I keep telling them we’ll keep doing it until we no longer can.”
The federal OAA money is given to the state, and then to MCCOG, which captures a significant
portion of the funding for administrative purposes, Patton said, before passing the rest on to 11 area meal programs in five counties, including the local Meals on Wheels.
It is a circumstance she and other meal organizations have fought against for years. Wood, however, is proposing changes that Patton welcomes (see related story).
“Down here at the meal program, without the United Way and our bingo [weekly fundraiser] we would’ve shut our doors years ago. I kid you not,” Patton said.
In mid-March, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the federal community development block grant program would be eliminated in Trump’s proposed budget.The block grant program, established in 1974, works to provide services to the most vulnerable in communities, according to its website. The block grants are given to states to distribute as they see fit.
“Meals on Wheels sounds great,” Mulvaney told reporters earlier at a daily White House briefing. “That's a great state decision, but to take the federal money and give it to states — and say we want to give you money to programs that don't work, we can't defend that anymore.”
Mulvaney told reporters, “You're only focusing on half of the equation, right? You’re focusing on recipients of the money. We’re trying to focus on both the recipients of the money and the folks who give us the money in the first place. And I think it's fairly compassionate to go to them and say, ‘Look, we're not going to ask you for your hard-earned money anymore … unless we can guarantee to you that that money is actually going to be used in a proper function. And I think that is about as compassionate as you can get.”
Eight years ago, the MCCOG cut the OAA funding to Meals on Wheels by $40,000, a “huge hit,” Patton said. But rather than scale back the amount of people Meals on Wheels served, “we had one fundraiser after another, just to keep the doors open.”
Things finally turned around when the Meals on Wheels program received “a small inheritance and it gave us the breathing room we needed to got back on our feet. Of course, it doesn’t last forever.”
The weekly bingo game on Thursdays at the Mid-Columbia Senior Center, where Meals on Wheels is housed, brings in over $40,000 a year. United Way contributed $12,000 this year. “It’s an incredible gift,” Patton said. They also have other annual fundraisers, including the babyback rib meal.
“The one thing I can’t stress enough: again, this program is designed to help seniors. They have no option to go out and increase their finances. They can’t go to work. We’re here to do a meal for them, to make sure they get one really good, nutritious meal and a safety check. And again, we save our government literally thousands of dollars by assisting these people staying in their homes.”
“To keep one of our people in their home for one month, it costs our federal government $17 instead of thousands of dollars in a care facility, and nobody recognizes that,” Patton said.
“It’s probably one of the best programs in our country for helping to alleviate the burden on the taxpayer,” she said. The recipients are asked to make a suggested donation of $3.75 per meal, but are not required to pay.
“So we literally served 2,500 meals last month on our home deliveries and our total program income for that was right around $1,700, meaning that’s all the money we got for serving our meals. We never track who pays. If they never make a donation, we don’t know.”
The $1,700 means 453 meals were paid for at the suggested $3.75 per meal rate. Meals on Wheels uses volunteer drivers, who do seven routes each weekday to deliver hot meals.
What’s most important, Patton said, is that seniors not only get a hot meal, but they get daily social interaction. Volunteer drivers check on seniors and talk to them. “That may be the only person our senior or disabled person sees all day long. And they save lives.
“Our staff makes very little money, most of our program is run by volunteers who really care, it’s just an incredible thing,” Patton said. She has five part-time kitchen staff that rotate workdays, and a person to oversee the home deliveries.
Meals on Wheels also serves lunch on-site at the senior center five days a week. “People come in, they play games, listen to music, they have a really good time and it’s just a really good environment,” she said.
She has never had a waiting list for people on the program. “If somebody needs to eat, they need to eat. If that happens, we’d try to figure out more ways to make money, because my gosh, how can you tell somebody they can’t have a meal?”
Now, about 110 people get home deliveries, and about 50 people come for the meal at the senior center. The meal at the senior center has lost a lot of people over the last five years, she said. It used to draw 75 to 100 people.