Whatcom Meals on Wheels program faces cuts, possible waiting list

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 30, 2013 

When federal sequestration budget cuts kicked in last spring, many Meals on Wheels programs across the country reduced the number of meals they serve to seniors and started or added to their waiting lists.

So far, the program that feeds hundreds of elderly people in Whatcom County hasn't taken such steps. But that could change.

A new drop in federal funding next year, at the same time that demand for meals is rising, means a waiting list and a reduction in the number of meals and people served will be considered when the next budget is put together soon for the Whatcom/San Juan Senior Nutrition Program.

"We're one of the few who haven't made cuts in our program," said Julie Meyers, program director. "Seniors are hungry. They rely on this program."

To get by, the program has dipped into its financial reserves ever since the Great Recession started more than five years ago, pulling out $50,000 to $100,000 a year, sometimes more. The program won't keep doing that beyond a few more years, Meyers said.

The reserves include money from one-time large donations and from bequeaths.

When it comes to meals, the program has two main parts.

For its "Community Meals," more than 95,000 made-from-scratch hot meals are served each year to people 60 and older at a dozen locations in Whatcom and San Juan counties.

In Whatcom County, hot meals are served five days a week at the senior centers in Bellingham, Blaine and Ferndale; twice a week at the senior centers in Everson, Point Roberts and Sumas; and three times a week at the three high-rise senior apartment complexes run by Bellingham Housing Authority.

People who are younger than 60 can enjoy one of the hot meals if they pay the $6 full price.

For its "Meals on Wheels," more than 57,000 frozen meals are delivered each year to people who are 60 or older and who are homebound due to illness or disability. Some people receive meals for a short time, perhaps after a surgery; others have received meals for years. About 400 seniors are helped by Meals on Wheels, most of them in Whatcom County.

Most of the seniors served by the nutrition are low-income, Meyers said.

Besides providing important nutrition, the meals enable seniors to stay in their homes longer and avoid the expense of moving into long-term care facilities, said Mary Carlson, executive director of the Whatcom Council on Aging, which oversees the nutrition program.

This year, nearly 40 percent of the nutrition program's $1 million budget is covered by federal money. Federal funding for this year was about $35,000 less than the year before.

For the coming year, federal funding is expected to drop another $25,000. The cut could be steeper if Congress enacts further reductions or if the government endures a shutdown, Carlson said.

About 27 percent of the program's revenue comes from donations from eaters. The rest, about 35 percent, comes from grants, other donations and fundraisers.

Meyers said fundraising needs to become a stronger focus. Competition among nonprofit groups for funding is fierce, she said, and many people mistakenly think Meals on Wheels is entirely government-funded.

Last spring, the program launched March for Meals, a month of promotional events. While the activities raised awareness, they raised only a few thousand dollars, Meyers said.

Many people involved in making the program work are volunteers, including the drivers who deliver the frozen meals each week, along with a container of milk and a small loaf of bread.

Matt Dennis, a retired credit union executive, has been a driver for about three years. He has two routes: Tuesdays, he delivers meals to about 20 people in north Bellingham; Thursdays, he delivers to about nine people in the Lummi Reservation area.

"You get attached to these people," Dennis said. "In a couple of cases, you may be the only person seeing them."

"Just about everybody says 'Thank you,'" he said. "They appreciate it."

TO HELP

• St. Luke's Foundation will match $1 for every $2 donated to the Senior Nutrition Program, up to $25,000 in donations. For details, call 360-671-3349 or see stlukesfoundation.org.

• For details about the Senior Nutrition Program, call 360-733-4030 or visit the Bellingham Senior Activity Center, 315 Halleck St.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com.

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