Meals on Wheels program not cut after weeks of worry

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan groups were relieved Wednesday after learning that proposed cuts in President Donald Trump’s budget won’t directly affect home-delivered meal programs for low-income senior citizens.

But the solace is tempered by a longstanding concern about what they say is inadequate federal funding for the Meals on Wheels program — a service run by nonprofits but funded mostly with government money and some private donations.

The Trump administration’s budget plan released Tuesday included a proposed $12.7 billion reduction for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2018. But the cuts would not extend to Meals on Wheels programs after after an earlier, sketchier budget blueprint set off a panic among Metro Detroit groups that meals would be on the chopping block too.

Funding for the Older Americans Act, which largely funds Meals on Wheels programs in Michigan, is kept at 2016 levels in Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, and White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney reiterated Wednesday that the home-delivered meal program would not see cuts.

But the national Meals on Wheels leader and local program directors said it’s less than what the federal government offered the program in a 2017 stopgap budget approved earlier this month. It is also not enough to get thousands in Michigan off waiting lists for the program or feed everyone who may need it, they said.

The 2018 budget proposal offers $3 million less for the program than the 2017 stopgap budget did, according to Meals on Wheels America.

About 52,340 seniors in Michigan eat 8.36 million meals provided for by the program each year, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Federal funding has stayed nearly flat since 2010, according to the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

Metro Detroit groups said they have struggled to meet rising demand as federal aid has stayed nearly flat in the past seven years.

“I’m absolutely out of options in terms of innovative ways to cut costs,” said Steve Haveraneck, vice president of operations at the Troy-based Senior Meals on Wheels, which last year served 1,600 people in 16 cities. “The last 10 years we’ve been dancing. We could really use a hand, not a kick.

“The government consistently seems to think they can fix their problems by depriving Grandma of her lunch money,” Haveraneck added later. “How many years do you have to operate at the same level of funding before it feels and acts like a cut?”

Government aid outlined

In 2016, about $39.3 million in federal, state and local money was dedicated to Meals on Wheels in Michigan, according to the state Department of Health and Humans Services. The state provided $10.4 million.

The Metro Detroit area agencies for Oakland, Macomb and four other counties said they last year received about $4.6 million in federal Meals on Wheels aid and about $9.1 million from federal, state and private funding overall.

Local agencies receive most of their support from government aid. The Area Agency on Aging 1-B, which covers six counties including Oakland and Macomb, gets 20 percent of its money through private donations.

Nearly 3.2 million home-delivered meals were sent to Metro Detroit residents last year, according to the state Human Services Department.

The impact of Trump’s proposed budget is difficult to quantify because federal funding for Meals on Wheels comes from a variety of sources. They include a small amount from the community block grants through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Older Americans aid through the Health and Human Services and nutrition incentive grants through the Agriculture Department.

Despite federal and state aid, groups that help deliver Meals on Wheels say they’re strained to offer enough food to seniors who need it.

The Detroit Area Agency on Aging serves about 5,000 meals a day to Metro Detroit seniors for about $3 million a year. But it should be serving more like 10,000 a day and get more than 1,300 seniors off of a waiting list to eat, agency President and CEO Paul Bridgewater said.

“So when you look at our ability to serve this elderly population, we’re barely keeping up,” Bridgewater said. “As a matter of fact, we’re behind.”

Rising demand for meals

About 60 percent of the agency’s annual budget is federally funded. Cutting that would have a “dire impact” on seniors, Bridgewater said.

The Trump administration has defended its budget blueprint proposal as fiscally responsible and compassionate to taxpayers.

The Michigan Senate and House have proposed slightly increasing state spending for Meals on Wheels in fiscal 2018. But meal program directors said they don’t consider it enough to meet rising demand.

Jim McGuire, interim chief executive officer for the Area Agency on Aging 1B, said he’s grateful for Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed $3.6 million increase. The state Senate approved Snyder’s funding recommendation, while the state House budget approved a smaller funding hike.

McGuire, who lobbies state lawmakers for more program funding, said roughly 7,000 seniors across the state are on waiting lists for home-delivered meals. “We can’t meet the needs that we see now,” he said.

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Twitter: @MikeGerstein