Budget cuts hit Greater Minn. senior food programs

Renata Rislow and tablemates
Renata Rislow, 84, talks to her tablemates as they enjoy a meal provided by Semcac at the Lewiston Community Center Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

Lunch hour at the Lewiston Senior Center usually starts with a joke. "Who goes, 'Ho, ho, ho,' swish. 'Ho, ho, ho,' swish. 'Ho, ho, ho,' swish?" Renata Rislow asks. "Santa Claus caught in revolving doors!"

Rislow, 84, and the other rosy-cheeked ladies adorned in holiday sweaters give it a hearty laugh before they grab plastic cafeteria-style trays and line up for lunch. For years, the women have met here for fellowship, conversation and a lunch provided by the Southeast Minnesota Community Action Agency.

It's a tradition, though, nearing its end. While the shared meals are popular, sites like this one aren't bringing in enough people on a daily basis to stay open.

Driven by federal budget cuts, groups next week will close three dozen of the state's 502 congregate meal sites. Most of those closing are in Greater Minnesota. The Southeast Minnesota Community Action Agency will shut four of its 57 dining sites on Tuesday, including lunch in Lewiston.

Agencies and individual providers have made alternative arrangements for seniors, including converting many to home-delivered meals, said Jean Wood, executive director of the Minnesota Board on Aging. Still, "closing a site is always a challenge for a community and for a provider because you have to tell someone that they're not getting something the same way they thought they were going to get it before," Wood said. "It takes a little bit of time for folks to adjust."

Cutting beets
A woman cuts into some pickled beets during a meal provided by Semcac at the Lewiston Community Center Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

While the feast may be moveable, it will be hard to replace the community built during lunchtimes at the center.

Evelyn Janzow, 89, has been coming to lunch at Lewiston for nearly 30 years. When the program closes, she'll have meals delivered to her home instead.

"I wouldn't make ... things like this just for myself," she said. "It isn't nice eating by yourself, but it's better than not having any meals."

The meals have also been a lifeline for 78-year-old Arlis Ellinghuysen, who joined the group two years ago when her husband died.

"You know, it's nice to have someone to sit across the table from you and eat -- instead of just that brown-eyed dog looking at you," she laughed. "The social aspect is very important."

Senior meals
Seniors line up for their meals provided by Semcac at the Lewiston Community Center Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. Dozens of senior meal programs around Minnesota will close on Jan. 1, 2014, as a result of federal budget cuts. For the first time in its history, Semcac will have to close some of its meal locations in some of the most rural areas of southeastern Minnesota. This location in Lewiston is one of four centers the agency will close in the next few weeks.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

In 2012, Minnesota received $6.9 million in funding from the Older Americans Act, which funds senior programs including congregate and home-delivered meals, health promotion, and caregiver support. But that money was cut by nearly $500,000, about 7 percent, forcing the regional agencies that distribute the money to close sites with declining populations.

So far the cuts are only affecting congregate sites, but home-delivered meal programs are also feeling a squeeze.

Six of 35 Twin Cities home-delivery meal programs ran out of federal funding in October and are carrying the costs of their home-delivered meals, said Patrick Rowan, executive director of Metro Meals on Wheels.

"The last thing they want to do is close," Rowan said. "The second-to-last thing they want to do is turn people away."

Federal money makes up part 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.

Seniors enjoy a meal
Seniors enjoy a meal provided by Semcac at the Lewiston Community Center Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

Rowan hopes the new budget agreement passed by Congress will increase spending for senior programs.

"We can hold out for a little while, into January or February until Congress makes some decisions on how to spend those discretionary funds," he said. "But beyond that, they're just going to be forced to start making decisions about who they're able to serve."

In Lewiston, those decisions are already set.

The center's closure will be a big adjustment for many of these seniors, especially in a place like Lewiston, a town of about 1,600 just east of Rochester, that doesn't have a grocery store.

"It's going to be really sad," Gail Schwanbeck, the center's senior nutrition program manager, said as Renata Rislow and other seniors finished lunch. Many of them will have food delivered to their homes in the new year, but Schwanbeck worries how the change will affect the group's overall well-being.

The seniors, she said, will have to "go outside of their close-knit community and find the services that they need to stay independent, or move so that they can be as independent as possible, wherever that might be."

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