BROOKSVILLE — Local Meals on Wheels officials are scrambling to keep federal budget cuts from affecting the bellies of needy seniors.
As a result of the across-the-board cuts known as the sequester, Mid-Florida Community Services is facing a 5 percent hit to its budget of about $2 million to provide meals in Hernando, Lake and Sumter counties.
The $90,000 cut for the fiscal year that ends Dec. 31 equates to 4,500 meals in Hernando, 9,000 in Lake and 2,500 in Sumter, said George Popovich, Mid-Florida's director of senior services.
The reduction will not affect the core mission of delivering square lunches to those who need them, but the shortfall could result in fewer supplemental meals. A large majority of those are breakfasts.
Officials hope it doesn't come to that.
"That provides one-third of their nutritional requirement," Popovich said.
Mid-Florida is reaching out for help in all three counties. The hope is that community support and typical summertime attrition will help avert a reduction in service.
"We're taking every avenue possible to keep our clients from being affected or alarmed by this issue," said Michael Georgini, Mid-Florida's executive director.
According to the Meals on Wheels Association of America, the $85 billion sequester caused a nearly $39 million cut to the Older Americans Act, the primary source of federal funding for Meals on Wheels. The state of Florida's share: about $3.9 million.
Mid-Florida's Meals on Wheels program runs entirely on federal grants. Each meal — lunch or breakfast — costs the agency $4.53.
Popovich will closely monitor attrition rates in the coming weeks. When a client dies or stops service for some other reason, another will not be added to the rolls.
"We have a waiting list of 250 for Hernando," Georgini said. "We could fill that need if we had the money to do so. It's sad."
By July, officials will notify clients about the program's financial situation and whether a cut to service appears likely.
Georgini emphasized that the most vulnerable clients will not be affected. Clients are ranked based on a number of risk factors, and those who are disabled and lack a support network, for example, remain the top priority.
"Those in imminent need we try to serve no matter what," he said.
The agency is looking everywhere to find money. Vacant positions are left unfilled, and the Mid-Florida senior services department is forgoing retirement matching funds for the rest of the year. Staffers in the Head Start program, which is also dealing with a 5 percent cut, did the same.
A sizable chunk of community support has arrived at a good time.
Four local restaurants owned by the Orlando-based Darden chain recently donated $4,000 to Mid-Florida's Meals on Wheels program. Darden's community grants program allows local restaurants to award grants to nonprofit groups in their area, said Scott Isaacs, a director of operations based in Tampa.
Red Lobster restaurants in Spring Hill and Port Richey, an Olive Garden in Inverness and a LongHorn Steakhouse in Port Richey pooled their grants for the donation.
A dozen other restaurants in Tampa and Brandon donated $12,000 to Meals on Wheels of Tampa.
The donations were already in the works before the sequester became a reality, Isaacs said.
"Good things happened to great initiatives," he said, " and I think the timing is karma."
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.