Seniors, Communities Worry About Federal Budget Cuts to Meals on Wheels Programs - NBC4 Washington
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Seniors, Communities Worry About Federal Budget Cuts to Meals on Wheels Programs

“It seems to me that all of the programs that support our most needy, vulnerable populations are the ones that are being jeopardized,” said John Birkner Jr., mayor of Westwood, N.J.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    President Trump's budget includes a cut to Meals on Wheels. NBC10's Randy Gyllenhaal took a look at who the cuts will impact the most.

    (Published Sunday, March 19, 2017)

    Dale Lamphier, 97, never married and her closest living relatives―three nephews―live across the country. About two years ago, she moved to a senior housing complex in Westwood, New Jersey, a town she has lived in her whole life. She has been using the meal delivery service Meals on Wheels since her brother died about three years ago.

    "Meals on Wheels is important because I can't do much shopping―very little," she said. "And I can't carry things. There are a lot of people here that can't."

    There is a Trader Joe's about a block from her complex, which she walks to, but not often. She relies on her daily meal delivery.

    Dale Lamphier, 97, says some days it's difficult for her to walk even down the block to the supermarket. She says she depends on her daily delivery from Meals on Wheels.
    Photo credit: Shannon Ho

    North Jersey is just one of the thousands of Meals on Wheels branches that could see cuts to its funding under President Donald Trump's proposed budget plan. Jeanne Martin, the executive director of Meals on Wheels North Jersey, said her program reaches about 220 senior citizens across 30 towns in northern Bergen County. If Trump's budget plan passes, her branch will lose about $32,000―10 percent of her annual budget―and potentially more money from other Department of Health and Human Services grants.

    As a whole, the national Meals on Wheels organization receives about 35 percent of its funding from the federal government. Trump is proposing to end the Community Development Block Grants, one of many federal grants that fund the program. Other cuts to Health and Human Services, the parent agency for Meals on Wheels, also could affect the program negatively, but the magnitude of those cuts is unknown. 

    Martin has been the executive director of Meals on Wheels in North Jersey for 12 years. She said she has never seen a federal cut this large.

    "I don't see any room for us in that budget," she said. "I haven't seen any positive things coming from [the Trump administration] in the social services or the senior service so far."

    "It is going to impact our program," she said. "We're not going to be able to offer the subsidies to our clients that they really need."

    Andre Sitbon, a Holocaust survivor in his early 90s, has been using Meals on Wheels for more than five years out of the Westwood seniors complex. Around three years ago Sitbon's wife died and he started having severe eye problems, which interfered with his love of cooking. He said the program "receives you with arms open," with extremely friendly staff and good food. On Monday he received meatloaf, mashed potatoes and mixed greens.

    Another senior, a 65-year old mentally disabled man, had virtually nothing in his fridge except the two meals―one hot, one cold―that Martin delivered to him Monday morning. The only other parcels were an apple and a small carton of milk, which were given to him by Meals on Wheels the day before.

    The inside of a refrigerator owned by a 65-year-old mentally disabled man, a Meals on Wheels recipient in Westwood, New Jersey. All of the food in the fridge was supplied by the program.
    Photo credit: Shannon Ho

    Martin estimated that about 30 percent of the seniors in her program are no longer visited by family and, like Lamphier, are isolated. Martin said the 550 local volunteer drivers who deliver the meals are often the ones who report health problems and find fallen or sick seniors. Meals on Wheels, she said, is "more than just a meal."

    "We're helping people stay in their homes, which is where they want to stay," she said. "It's keeping people out of nursing homes. And they want to spend the rest of the time they have on this world in their homes and we're doing the best we can to give them that."

    When Martin became director there were about 100 seniors in the program. The number has more than doubled during her tenure, though she thinks that there are hundreds more seniors who need assistance but are too isolated or too worried about appearing needy to receive help.

    If Martin loses funding she would have to make changes to the program's model. The food is now prepared by four local nursing homes to meet federal guidelines. But if the program no longer receives federal funds, it would be free to receive donated meals from volunteers.

    Andre Sitbon receives a Meals on Wheels delivery from Westwood Mayor John Birkner Jr. on March 20. Sitbon has used the food delivery program for more than five years. He praises the service that has become his main source of nourishment since he contracted severe eye problems that have kept him from cooking for himself.
    Photo credit: Shannon Ho

    "It seems to me that all of the programs that support our most needy, vulnerable populations are the ones that are being jeopardized," said John Birkner Jr., the mayor of Westwood. He also said that recent comments made by Trump administration officials "trivialize" the importance of programs like Meals on Wheels.

    Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, called Meals on Wheels a program that is "just not showing any results." 

    "We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good," he said at a news conference last Thursday. "Meals on Wheels sounds great. Again, that's a state decision to fund that particular portion, to take the federal money and give it to the states, and say look, we want to give you money for programs that don't work."

    Martin called Mulvaney’s comments "insulting" and said he "couldn’t be more wrong."

    Supporters have cited studies to back their case. A University of Illinois review in 2013 of home-delivery programs for seniors found that they "significantly improve" the nutritional quality of diets, as well as increased chances for socialization and an overall "higher quality of life."

    Another study in 2015 by Brown University researchers found multiple benefits of Meals on Wheels for senior citizens, including reduced feelings of isolation and loneliness, an increased feeling of security and fewer falls and hospitalizations.

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    Martin said the cost of a year's worth of meals from her program was $1,500. She compared that to the cost of a one-day hospitalization. 

    "So, if we're keeping someone well-nourished and doing a well-check on them, we're saving the government money by keeping them out of the hospital," Martin said. 

    Meals on Wheels has about 5,000 local and state delivery programs that supply food to isolated, disabled or poor seniors. In 2016, they served about 2.4 million people, including more than 500,000 veterans.

    Jeanne Martin, executive director of Meals on Wheels North Jersey, makes a delivery to a Westwood resident Mike Helm. Martin's branch of Meals on Wheels faces a 10 percent budget cut if the Community Development Block Grant is eliminated, like Donald Trump's 2018 federal budget outlines. She counters that the program is "more than just a meal," and acts as a vital service to the community.
    Photo credit: Shannon Ho

    National Meals on Wheels spokeswoman Jenny Bertolette confirmed to NBC that the program has seen a significant spike in donations since Mulvaney’s comments last Thursday. On a typical day, the nonprofit receives about $1,000 in individual online donations.

    Three days after the preliminary budget was released, Meals on Wheels had received about $140,000 in donations. On Tuesday, the nonprofit told The Associated Press that it had received an additional $50,000 donation from NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. 

    Bertolette said the organization was "thrilled about the public’s passionate support" but also said the additional donations could not replace what it gets from the federal government.

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    The portion of Meals on Wheels' budget that comes from the federal government is part of the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program, which falls under Health and Human Services. Trump is calling for an 18 percent cut to the department.

    Each state uses Community Block Development Grants differently, so the amount that funds Meals on Wheels per branch varies widely. For example, one program in the suburbs of Detroit could lose 30 percent of its budget; on the other end, New York City's Meals on Wheels is funded through other grants, so it is not affected by the potential loss of Community Block Development Grants.

    The program is also funded by private money.

    The littered kitchen of a Meals on Wheels recipient in Westwood, New Jersey. The woman who lives here, in her early 90s, lives in complete isolation and lost her life savings to a local politician's Ponzi scheme. She seldom leaves her chair and relies on Meals on Wheels deliveries to feed herself.
    Photo credit: Shannon Ho

    "Cuts of any kind to these highly successful and leveraged programs would be a devastating blow to our ability to provide much-needed care for millions of vulnerable seniors in America," Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America, said in a statement.

    The cuts are no sure thing. Congress must pass the budget that Trump has outlined and there has already been support from both sides of the aisle for Meals on Wheels.

    Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., tweeted that cuts to programs like Meals on Wheels "jeopardizes the health and safety of the poor."

    Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., told CNN he would "never vote to cut even one dollar" of Meals on Wheels.

    Since Mulvaney's comments last week, Martin has gained three more volunteers and an additional donor. 

    Even if the budget doesn't cut as much as the 10 percent that is currently threatened, to Martin "a cut is a cut."