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Meals on Wheels feels financial pinch

Monday through Friday, Diane Brown waits for lunch to arrive at her doorstep.

On one recent day, the menu was beef penne pasta, Neapolitan spinach, Italian vegetable medley, dinner roll, peach cup and a carton of low-fat milk, brought on two plastic foam trays wrapped in plastic.

The 69-year-old St. Petersburg resident, who uses a wheelchair, jokes with the Meals on Wheels driver. Sometimes, Brown won't see a soul during the day, except the person who delivers her meals.

In her three years as a Meals on Wheels client, this is the first hurricane season Brown won't get shelf-stable emergency meals that the program provides to help homebound seniors prepare for a potential natural disaster. Budget constraints forced the local Meals on Wheels program to cut the service.

"It does concern me," she said, though adding, "I try not to worry."

Pinellas County's Meals on Wheels and Senior Dining programs, which provide low-cost meals to senior citizens, lost about $199,000 in funding due to automatic federal spending cuts enacted this year. Florida was the state second-most affected by cuts to the Older Americans Act, following California.

In order to cope, the nonprofit has had to trim staff and cut services that cater to low-income seniors who lack access to food and interaction with others.

John Cummings, 87, of Jordan Park in St. Petersburg, has a prosthetic leg. He waits for his daily meal, which he has received for almost 10 years, sitting in an electric wheelchair on his front porch, surrounded by a vibrant garden of silk flowers.

With few words, he signs a sheet and sets the meal in his lap.

"Senior citizens can't get out," he said. "(Budget cuts) hurt all senior citizens, like me."

Amid the cuts, there's a 600-person waiting list for Meals on Wheels in Pinellas County, and the program isn't taking on any new clients, said Marsha Coke, director of nutrition services and adult day care for Neighborly Care Network, which oversees the program. A typical wait list peaks at about 100.

"This is devastating," Coke, 62, said. "If people don't get nutrition, they'll get ill or depressed, which means they'll end up in a hospital or nursing home."

Neighborly Care Network used to have 11 Senior Dining sites where active seniors could come for a daily meal. Now there are just four. About 100 seniors have been told they can no longer participate in Senior Dining.

Coke noted that Neighborly Care Network cut people from Senior Dining based on their level of need. Those who relied on the service the most stayed in the program.

Neighborly Care Network is in dire need of volunteers to deliver meals to homebound seniors because the organization can't afford more paid drivers. Since the cuts happened, the organization has had to ask volunteers to pick up extra shifts and drive farther.

Paid driver Daniel Fuentes said even with the added responsibilities, it's a thankful job because he's helping people who can't help themselves. Fuentes occasionally has to take a meal to a person in bed because the person is unable to get up and go to the door.

"It's not like flipping burgers," said Fuentes, 23.

Sequestration has forced many nonprofits across the country to slash budgets and cut staff, said Ann Morrison, an instructor in the nonprofit certificate program at the University of South Florida. Nonprofits have also lost quite a bit of private donations. Some organizations even choose to operate at a deficit in order to keep providing services.

"Whenever you have any funding that was cut midyear or funds that were promised," Morrison said, "you have to go in and make decisions that are hard."

She said this is a time when organizations have to rely on their volunteer base and clients to fight for their causes in the budget debates.

Neighborly Care Network encourages its clients to reach out to their congressional representatives, but it's difficult for this demographic to get their message across because they are elderly and often low-income, frail, ill or homebound, Coke said.

"This is a very unfortunate lobby," she said. "This is a group of people who are not going to speak out. Their need is great. Their fear is great."

FAST FACTS

Want to help?

Call Meals on Wheels at (727) 573-9444, ext. 4210.

Meals on Wheels feels financial pinch 09/24/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 7:06pm]
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