Home-delivered meal programs in Minnesota have managed to weather the hit they took in the across-the-board federal budget cuts earlier this year — at least for now.
Minnesota gets $2.8 million from the federal government each year for a number of organizations that deliver meals to seniors in their homes. Because of the sequester, that money was cut by $155,000 — about 5 percent.
Before the sequester took effect in March, critics warned the cuts could force some seniors off the program. Hunger advocates, politicians, and the White House expressed concern that home-delivered meals would have to be scaled back.
But no Minnesota seniors have been forced off of the program, nor have any groups reduced the number of meals they provide. That's because the Area Agencies on Aging that distribute the money have been able to tap reserves — or make other adjustments — to fill the gap.
"We've been very fortunate. We have not as yet experienced any cuts," said Jean Wood, executive director of the Minnesota Board on Aging.
Volunteers deliver thousands of meals across the state every day and say seniors are anxious to see them.
"A lot of times they're waiting at the door," Marian Rohlik said on a recent delivery run in Chaska. "That's probably the only meal they're going to get of the day, and we're probably the only company they're going to get for the day."
Rohlik volunteers for the Scott-Carver-Dakota Community Action Partnership, which delivers about 175 meals each day in the Twin Cities suburbs, including one to senior Dorothy Kruse. Kruse said she eats healthier food thanks to the daily meals. She has memory problems, so it's hard for her to get out to the grocery store.
"You just can't imagine the feeling it is to know that if you go out, and you want to go somewhere, will you be able to find the place and will you be able to find your way back home? That's sounds crazy to you, but it's miserable," Kruse said.
TROUBLE IN THE NOT-TOO-DISTANT FUTURE
The budget maneuvering done by regional agencies means Kruse and other seniors will continue to receive their vegetables and hot meals. But next year, some home meal-delivery agencies could face tough choices.
Wood, from the Minnesota Board on Aging, said the maneuvers are short-term solutions and she doesn't expect the cuts are going away.
"When we first heard about this, we thought in terms of, we were going to lose 5 percent in 2013. And then it dawned on us — no, this goes into perpetuity," Wood said.
If nothing changes, the real problems begin in January.
"There's not a crisis today, but the cuts for 2014 will be real," said Dawn Simonson, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging.
Simonson's group distributes the federal money to groups in the Twin Cities area that deliver meals. Simonson said the reserve they used to get through this year will be gone by December. The agency's projected budget cuts home-delivered meals by thousands of dollars in 2014.
But even then, seniors won't be tossed off the program.
"Certainly we're not going to cut people off from services," Simonson said. "I think it's more around not being able to accept new participants versus cutting anyone off. That would not happen."
TAPPING OTHER FUNDING SOURCES
Federal money makes up just portion of the budget for home-delivered meals. Other funds come from private donations and other public sources. Many recipients also contribute to the cost of their meal.
Each meal delivery program will have to decide for itself whether it can make up the loss in federal money in 2014 with other funding sources.
In Chaska, leaders of the Scott-Carver-Dakota Community Action Partnership that provides meals for Dorothy Kruse don't plan to reduce clients or meals. They are confident they can fund raise to fill the hole.
But North Minneapolis Meals on Wheels Executive Director Denise Mwasyeba said that won't be possible for her group. Mwasyeba is planning for a wait list, and she's going to have to decide who's on it.
"Let me tell you, this is going to be heartbreaking," Mwasyeba said. "Because we do not like to turn people down."
Turning people down is what worries Patrick Rowan, executive director of Metro Meals on Wheels, an association of 36 meal programs in the Twin Cities metro, including Mwasyeba's group. He said this just isn't the time to cut services for seniors. The need is only going to grow.
"Our average recipient for Meals on Wheels is 85 years old. By 2020, that population is expected to increase by 150 percent," Rowan said.
Rowan is concerned that because meals haven't been cut yet, the public will think everything is just fine — when the real trouble is still coming.
"If we keep cutting back on services for people that are in need, eventually it's all going to fall apart," he said.