Imagine a program designed to feed indigent and elderly people who may not otherwise have anything to eat. Imagine it feeds homebound people and the needy who depend on the daily meal provided by the program for what could be their only source of nourishment. Imagine a program that brings lunch to the housebound so that they can live in their own homes rather than in nursing homes. Then, imagine federal budget cuts mean you and thousands of others in need will have to go without that meal and could be shuffled off to nursing homes unless the community bands together to keep the program from reducing in size or disappearing altogether. That program exists. It is Meals on Wheels, and it is in trouble.
The goal of the nonprofit Meals on Wheels is to feed the hungry and keep elderly and homebound citizens out of nursing homes. Volunteers deliver food to qualifying individuals who are unable to leave their homes and feed themselves or their pets. The program also offers congregate meal sites throughout the community for people who are not housebound but are low-income and hungry.
Meals on Wheels originated in Great Britain in 1940 during the London Blitz when many people were displaced from their homes. The Women’s Volunteer Service for Civil Defence provided those meals to servicemen, which were delivered in baby carriages, leading to the name “Meals on Wheels.” The program spread throughout Great Britain, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. According to the Meals on Wheels Association of America website, there are more than 5,000 Meals on Wheels programs throughout the country serving more than 1 million meals every year.
In Jefferson and Hardin counties, Nutrition and Services for Seniors administers the program, and in Orange County, the Community Action Association keeps Meals on Wheels rolling.
Impact of sequester
The federal budget sequester resulting from the Budget Control Act of 2011 that went into effect in March of this year resulted in a loss of more than 11,000 meals from the Meals on Wheels programs within Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties. So far, the two entities responsible for those counties have been able to keep up with what was their existing demand for home-delivered meals at the time the budget cuts went into effect, but anyone who was not already signed up is out of luck, along with many who gather at congregate meal sites also a part of the program.
Linda Hughes is the executive director of the Orange County Community Action Association. She said there is a waiting list for people who wish to participate in the program, but until more funds are provided, she is simply serving as many people as possible.
“We are doing without,” Hughes said. “I can’t put anybody on (the program). We lost over 3,000 meals as a result of the budget cuts. It cuts back on how many meals you can serve. You can only do so much with so many dollars. First, they cut us 7.5 percent across the board. Then, they cut 2,000 more meals out of our program in another contract. We have people asking for meals, and we have had to tell people we can’t put them on the congregate meal site. We’ve never had to do that before. I have been here 21 years. Up until this time, we have never had to turn anyone away who wanted to eat lunch at the center. I have had so many people come in. We were serving 425 meals per day, but we can’t now. The funding just is not there. We run between 385 and 400 meals per day now. Their income is getting to where it doesn’t go as far. They are looking for a way to survive. If they can come and eat a hot meal every day, do you realize what the difference in the cost of their food bill is every month? It is huge. It is really, really sad.”
Elaine Shellenberger is the executive director of Nutrition and Services for Seniors in Beaumont, which provides Meals on Wheels to individuals in Hardin and Jefferson counties. Approximately 1,800 nutritious, dietician-approved meals per day are distributed throughout those counties, 1,300 to homebound individuals and hundreds to people who gather at 18 congregate meal sites scattered across those counties. Care packages are distributed with extra food for holidays and long weekends. She said the funding cuts have caused a reduction of 8,000 meals per year from the Meals on Wheels program serving Hardin and Jefferson counties.
Who is affected?
Shellenberger said the program is about more than just serving hot, nutritious meals to hungry people in need. She said the meals could mean the recipient can stay home rather than go to a nursing home. After all, someone is bringing them a meal once per day, sometimes hot and sometimes frozen for the person to heat, so they are being fed. They are also assured that someone will check on them at least once a day.
“It is less expensive to keep people in their homes than it is to keep them in nursing homes,” Shellenberger said. “Volunteers deliver the meal to the individual or the caregiver. Sometimes, that could be the only person they see all day and could be the only hot meal they get. They depend on it.”
Beaumont resident Elaine Ledet, 81, agrees. She has been on the program for more than two years. She is currently bed-ridden due to a diabetic-related injury and has her son staying with her most of the time right now, but normally she is alone during the day and is not able to prepare her own meal.
“I need it,” Ledet said of her daily delivered meal. “Meals on Wheels helps me so much. My meal is good. I don’t know what I would do without them. I don’t think I could get by without it. I would probably have to go into a nursing home or move in with family in Louisiana. My sons live here. I don’t want to move.”
Karen Fuljenz volunteers once a week and has done so for 13 years. She delivers to Ledet and keeps a watchful eye on all of her delivery recipients.
“The clients become really close to your heart,” Fuljenz said. “Five days a week, someone is stopping at their homes. If the person has a noticeable decline in health, we can notify the caregiver. And they look forward to our visits. One man used to give me a flower every time I visited.”
Fuljenz said her branch of Meals on Wheels even provides pet food for those who cannot leave their homes.
“We noticed a lot of people were giving half of their meal to their pets because they could not get to a store,” Fujenz related.
“Pets are important to recovery and for companionship,” Shellenberger pointed out, citing studies relating to benefits of pet therapy. “We want the clients to eat their whole meal, so we started taking pet food to some people.”
Nina Barnes takes care of her mother, 86-year-old Mary Batiste. Barnes is what Shellenberger refers to as part of the “sandwich generation,” someone who cares for their parents along with their children or grandchildren. Barnes said she has so much to do and so many who depend on her that she feels grateful to Meals on Wheels for all they do.
“It’s a blessing,” Barnes said. “It helps me a lot. I don’t have to stop and prepare her lunch which is hard for me with so much going on, and she enjoys her meal. I know it is good for her. Sometimes, they even give her a care package.”
Shellenberger said she has not lost any volunteers despite gas prices and economic ups and downs, and neither has Hughes, but they could always use more. Shellenberger said her group receives funds from several sources within the community, but in order to bring the program back to where it was prior to recent budget cuts or to expand and add those on the waiting list, more funds are needed. Hughes said the program she directs receives funding only through the federal government and through some donations. Both agree that the community can make a positive impact through various types of contributions.
“Volunteers would help. Donations would help,” Hughes said. “I’ll go further than that. Our vehicles are getting older and older. What is going to happen to those people from the meal program? Because they are not giving us any extra money — they are cutting us. They are not giving us any capital equipment. We could use newer vehicles. But where are they going to come from?”
Any suggestions? To donate your time or money to provide meals for seniors and other homebound individuals, contact Meals on Wheels in Beaumont by calling (409) 892- 4455 or in Orange by calling (409) 886-2186.