Meals on Wheels, the mobile food program supporting seniors, hit a speed bump in its programming this summer.
This year, the Meals on Wheels program in King County implemented a waitlist. It was the first time in three decades.
Adam Porter, the program manager, announced Meals on Wheels would accept 25 new clients a month, a 75 percent decrease. The rest can expect to be on the waitlist for five months.
“We are fully aware that this will be an extreme hardship on many applicants and will impact you and all of our volunteers who support this program,” Porter wrote in a letter to clients. “I would like you to know that you have my full sympathy, support and appreciation as we move forward with this situation.”
Meals on Wheels is facing a reduction in funding at the same time as need goes up. Despite a 40 percent increase in the number of applicants and a 20 percent increase in the number of meals delivered in the last three years, federal funding remains flat and support from Sound Generations, its parent program, has been slashed.
Although Meals on Wheels gets half of its money from the federal government through the Older Americans Act (OAA), another 39 percent comes from Sound Generations, a senior support program based in Seattle, formerly known as Senior Services. The remaining 11 percent is donated by clients.
OAA funding is flat, which, given the increase in applicants to the program, is effectively a cut. Sound Generations faced a significant cut itself in the last month when funding from United Way of King County — normally $800,000 — was reduced to $108,000.
United Way announced the reductions last year following a change in its strategic plan. The nonprofit chose to focus its grant on reducing homelessness and poverty, which meant general services, including its grant to Sound Generations, received less support, said Lauren McGowan, director of financial stability with United Way King County.
“In a time where we have limited resources, we wanted to focus in on the most vulnerable,” McGowan said.
United Way’s goals are ambitious: a 50 percent decrease in the unsheltered homeless population and a target of lifting 50,000 people in King County out of poverty.
However, the cut had a ripple effect through Sound Generations, part of which landed on Meals on Wheels at a time it can least afford.
Porter worries that the cuts are coming because food insecurity among seniors and the sick is an invisible problem because they have housing. Their challenges are hidden behind closed doors. It doesn’t seem invisible to his organization or the people that work there.
Fran Donohue has been a delivery driver for Meals on Wheels for seven years. On Fridays, she and her coworkers arrive at the Meals on Wheels warehouse on South Spokane Street under the viaduct between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. to start prepping meals.
Each of the roughly 30 meal options gets lined up by number in a serpentine pattern for easy access, piles of Salisbury steak, vegan curried lentil stew and chicken fritters with ranchero sauce. The employees then take their orders, printed out on an 8-by-11 piece of paper, and fill brown paper bags with the requested meals.
The five-month waitlist hurts people who find themselves hit by an unexpected emergency and need food to get by, but that’s not where the job of a Meals on Wheels employee ends, Donohue said.
A client might be infirm and need help taking the garbage out, or just someone to talk to.
“We’re not going to be able to help those folks,” Donohue said.
Driver Bisrat Teki knows that score. He makes 19 stops in Downtown Seattle and knows each of the clients that he serves.
“They’re so excited to see you,” Teki said. “They don’t get to talk to someone all the time. They need someone to talk to.”
Teki delivers to people like Marilyn Lyons, an elderly woman with a phobia of cameras who started with Meals on Wheels a year and a half ago. She admits she’s not a huge fan of the food, but she still looks forward to Fridays when her trays of chicken fritters and spaghetti and meat sauce come.
Her finances are tight, and she’s usually out of disposable income by the second week of the month.
“It makes a big difference,” Lyons said. “I run out of food by Monday and then I look forward to Friday. Because that’s when I can eat.”
Another man in her building, 76-year-old Victor Maffey, has been a member of Meals on Wheels for eight months. He donates $25 a month to the cause, trying to give what he can. Maffey doesn’t have a spare ounce of flesh on him and seems cold even in the Seattle summer. Still, he says his nutrition has improved since he got on the program and cooks for himself less.
Closer to the Central Library, Bob Gessner, a Vietnam War veteran with the 82nd Airborne, waits for his meals to come. Gessner, with his white Santa Claus beard and sweet demeanor, has a problem with his esophagus and has difficulty swallowing.
“Even if I don’t eat the main, I can still have the vegetables and fruit,” Gessner said.
What he can’t eat, he shares with his friends in the building.
Gessner heard about the waitlist from another man who had tried to join and said he was fifth in line. If he didn’t have access to Meals on Wheels, Gessner said he could perhaps start using the federal food aid program Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (snap). But getting out and about with his walker is difficult and what grocery stores exist in Downtown Seattle are more expensive than those further out.
All three of these clients could be considered “food insecure,” a term the United States Department of Agriculture defines as unreliable access to sufficient, nutritious food. According to the AARP Foundation, 18.3 percent of people over the age of 40 experienced food insecurity in 2012, the last year for which data is available.
Food insecurity in adults is highest between the ages of 40 and 59 because those individuals aren’t yet old enough to take advantage of programs for the elderly, according to Alexandra Lewin Zwerdling, a senior advisor for the AARP Foundation.
Although it is less common for seniors to experience food insecurity, when they do the consequences are dire.
“For many seniors, food security can mean better management of a whole range of chronic diseases, and it can mean the difference in being able to age in-place with dignity or face no choice but to enter expensive institutional care,” Lewin Zwerdling wrote in an email.
Seniors facing food insecurity are 53 percent more likely to die of a heart attack, 40 percent more likely to have congestive heart failure and 60 percent more likely to experience depression, she wrote.
Despite the consequences, only 42 percent of adults over the age of 60 who are eligible for SNAP actually participate, and a report by the Government Accountability Office suggested that only 10 percent of possibly eligible older adults access nutrition programs authorized under the OAA.
“The federal and state governments, as well as local service providers, must make these programs more efficient, as well as identify alternative funding streams to provide meals for those struggling,” Lewin Zwerdling wrote.
To meet the need, Porter and his team have been doing exactly that. They received $80,000 from the city of Seattle, and hope to further whittle away at the deficit with direct contributions from local governments in the areas of King County that it serves.
It worked out requests specific to each city that would eliminate the waiting lists for those areas. So far, only one has responded, Porter said.
With seven people applying to Meals on Wheels every day, the problem will get worse before it gets better.