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Proposed budget cuts senior meal programs

Date: 2/15/2012

Feb. 15, 2012

By Debbie Gardner

GREATER SPRINGFIELD — Municipalities and public schools may come out winners under Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed $32.3 billion state budget for fiscal year 2013 (FY13), but there are other areas slated for significant cuts.

Among those is the Department of Elder Affairs line item to fund the state's elder nutrition program, which supports both the Meals on Wheels and the congregate feeding programs provided through Councils on Aging across the state.

According to material provided by Highland Valley Elder Services Inc. of Florence, the governor's budget "slashes the Elder Nutrition Program line item by $1.5 million from the FY12 level of $6.325 million to $4.81 million." The move, which represents a 24 percent cut in program funding, reduces the funding to "lower than it was seven years ago in 2006 under Gov. Mitt Romney at $5.237 million."

Highland Valley provides meals to 24 towns in the upper Pioneer Valley.

An estimate of the impact provided by Al Norman, executive director of Massachusetts Home Care is that the budget reduction would result in a cut of approximately 250,000 senior meals statewide.

Tina Gorman, executive director of the Westfield Council on Aging, which receives nutrition program services at five sites through Highland Valley, said that level of cut could be significant for the city's population of 8,000 seniors.

"People started asking me about it as soon as they saw it on the news," Gorman said. "Highland Valley does the whole home delivery program in Westfield."

In addition, she said Highland Valley provides meals to the Senior Center's lunch program and the McGinn apartments two days a week and at Washington House, East Mountain View Senior Housing and the South Middle School senior feeding site five days a week.

"Are we going to be affected [if the cuts go through]? Of course we are," Gorman said.

Karen Martin, community services director for Greater Springfield Senior Services (GSSS), which provides Meals on Wheels to approximately 800 homebound seniors in Brimfield, Hampden, Holland, Palmer, Springfield and Wilbraham daily, and also supports the senior dining programs in Agawam, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Monson and West Springfield through grants, told Reminder Publications the proposed budget cut would have a significant impact on the services GSSS provides.

Martin said GSSS's FY12 budget was $1.7 million, with funding from the state's Office of Elder Affairs representing 19 percent of the money. The remainder of the funding comes from other sources, most of which is provided through the federal government.

If the 24 percent cut proposed in Patrick's House 1 budget is implemented, Martin said that would result in "a $76,000 cut out of our agency money for meals."

She said if that happens, GSSS would start by looking at its entire budget and do some "refocusing and restructuring" to its expenses before it started cutting its meals program. However, a cut that significant could also prompt the GSSS to increase the voluntary donation of $1.75 per meal it now requests of seniors, at congregate sites and tighten the access to the Meals on Wheels Program to "concentrate on the frailest of the frail, those who might not have family or anyone who can help them [prepare meals]," she added.

In 2011, GSSS provided a total of 335,950 home-delivered meals. In addition, it served 125,000 meals at Councils on Aging and senior housing sites.

Laurie Cassidy, executive director of the West Springfield Council on Aging, said if implemented, the proposed Elder Nutrition Program budget cut would most likely necessitate a prioritizing of services at the senior center.

"Our funding is dependent on grants from Greater Springfield Senior Services [and a budget cut] might mean our funding gets cut," Cassidy said. "Obviously Meals on Wheels are a concern, but so are our congregate meals clients."

Cassidy said the center, which prepares its meals in-house, might need to adjust its food costs and/or increase the voluntary donation it asks of seniors who come for the noon meal at the center.

She said the West Springfield Senior Center delivers approximately 160 meals to homebound seniors daily Monday to Friday, and serves between 60 and 75 individuals at its noon meal.

Kristina Lynch, assistant director for the Agawam Senior Center said her center's meal program also provides 160 Meals On Wheels daily Monday to Friday, and serves between 70 and 100 diners. The suggested donation for the center meals is $2.50.

She expressed concern that a reduction in the grant money Agawam receives from the GSSS for its meals program might mean her chef would have to cut food costs, leading to a reduction in the quality of food served.

With many seniors relying on the congregate dining as their main meal of the day, she said a reduction in that area would not be just "a reduction in food quality, but a reduction in quality of life."

Deborah Banda, state director of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Massachusetts, which represents more than 800,000 members age 50 and older in the Commonwealth, said, "Cutting the Elder Nutrition Program is short-sighted and cold-hearted. Short-sighted, because for many seniors, this program provides the only nutritious meal they may get on any given day, and if they don't get proper nutrition, they'll likely have health problems that will require more expensive care. Cold-hearted, because it takes food off the table for seniors, at a time when more than 140,000 older adults risk going hungry every day in Massachusetts. The proposed cut of $1.5 million will eliminate more than 240,000 meals for seniors in need. AARP will fight to have full funding for the Elder Nutrition Program restored."

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