Potential funding cuts put concerns for Meals on Wheels on front burner

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LEE — Gayl Puhalski is having lunch with her friends at the Lee Senior Center, but it wasn't so long ago that the 74-year-old was homebound and unable to go out for lunch, much less make a meal for herself.

"It was last year, after I was in the hospital for an operation," said Puhalski, of Lee. "I was not doing great."

Puhalski lives on one of the upper levels of Crossway Village Elder Living, where the Lee Senior Center is located on the ground floor. She doesn't know what she would have done for food during the five months she recuperated if it weren't for Meals on Wheels delivery.

"Warren was my deliverer," she said, waving to Warren Robertson, a chef in an ironic T-shirt that read "I'm Sorry I'm Late, I Didn't Want to Come."

"He was always very friendly. He'd come to the door, we'd have a conversation," Puhalski said. "He'd bring it upstairs."

"It was more like Meals on Feet," Robertson added.

Puhalski is one of the 850 Berkshire County residents who get a daily meal from Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit founded in the 1970s to combat elder malnutrition and help keep seniors living independently in their homes.

The local demand for Meals on Wheels is consistent over the past five years or so, said Elder Services of Berkshire County President John Lutz. Elder Services runs the Meals on Wheels program as well as provides many of the daily lunches served at area senior centers.

But funding is not. And it looks like one of the program's major funding sources — federal aid — is in jeopardy of shrinking. Nationally, federal funds cover more than one-third of Meals on Wheels' annual budget.

Local advocates are bracing for reductions in food assistance and other social safety net programs. President Donald Trump's fiscal year 2019 federal operating budget proposal is slated to come out in February. It is unclear how Trump and fellow Republicans, in majority-control of the House and Senate, will approach the budget this year.

The president last month signed a major change to the nation's tax code, which is projected to add over $1 trillion to the federal deficit.

"There's a lot of uncertainty," Lutz said. "Our hope is that the program can completely justify itself in economic and quality-of-life ways."

Uncertainty isn't something Puhalski could have dealt with over the summer, unable to leave the house and reliant on meal delivery.

"It made me feel good. I wasn't going anywhere," she said of the meals. When asked what she would have done without Meals on Wheels, Puhalski said: "I wouldn't have done anything."

Aging and eating

Food insecurity is a problem in rural Berkshire County, where more than 1 in 10 people don't know where their next meal is coming from, according to Western Massachusetts Food Bank. The problem is typically compounded for seniors by the population's overall reduced access to transportation and increased incidents of disability, which makes it more difficult for them to access healthy foods and prepare them.

This might be why Meals on Wheels delivery drivers get blessed so often by their clients. Meals on Wheels deliveries are free, and about 20 percent of recipients have had to choose between buying medicine or food, according to the 2016 National Survey of Older Americans Act.

There are no financial qualifications to receive Meals on Wheels. To get on the program, a person has to be physically incapable of securing and preparing hot, nutritious food for himself or herself. People typically stay on the program for several months.

"I have one woman that blesses me every time I see her," said driver Peter Drozd, a 72-year-old graphics designer from Pittsfield who has been delivering Meals on Wheels for more than three years. "She talks to God every day," he added with a smile, "so I know it's good."

In Berkshire County, Elder Services has 39 Meals on Wheels routes providing a hot meal every Monday through Friday to people in all of the county's 32 communities.

Drozd said he sees the physical good the hot meals do for his clients and he's glad to be able to provide a well-being check on people who might not see anyone but him on a daily basis.

"I see people struggling with so much," he said. "It makes me feel better to do this; it makes my day better. So, I'm doing this for selfish reasons; I feel like I'm accomplishing something."

All Meals on Wheels drivers are trained in how to check up on clients to make sure they are healthy and safe, said Rhonda Serre, outreach and advancement supervisor at Elder Services. If a driver notices someone's home is hazardous or if a person seems sick, unwashed, malnourished or abused, for example, they are to report the findings to Elder Services, which then seeks to find assistance for the client. And if someone doesn't come to the door to get their meal, the driver is supposed to phone Elder Services immediately so the client can be located.

Drozd, who has a 50-mile delivery route, said he had to make one of those emergency phone calls on his first day as a Meals on Wheels driver in South County. While delivering a meal to a woman living in a senior living complex, he knocked on her door and got no answer. He looked in the window and saw her on the ground. She was taken to a hospital and now lives in a nursing home, he said.

"One day they're there, and the next, they're gone," Drozd said.

And there are three or four clients Drozd has never laid eyes on because they can't leave their rooms. He'll leave the meal with their caregivers.

But the job can also be rewarding. One of Drozd's favorite clients is a 94-year-old woman named Bella who lives in Pittsfield and loves to tell stories about growing up in London during World War II.

"She tells stories all about being a kid in bomb shelters," Drozd said while driving his Jeep through a recent snowstorm, delivering prepared meals to people ages 60 and older who aren't able to get warm, nutritious food regularly.

"Her daughter would say, `No one wants to talk about this; it's boring stuff,' " he said. "But I was like, 'No, tell me; this is very interesting.' "

"She had to have ration cards to get her wedding dress," Drozd said. "I didn't know they had to ration cloth, too."

Money for food

Whether Meals on Wheels is on the federal chopping block this year is uncertain. The national program, which is administered locally by individual nonprofits, is primarily funded by federal money from the Older Americans Act, Community Development Block Grants, municipalities, fundraising and donations.

Money provided by the federal government has been on a steady decline for the past 10 years. In 2005, the U.S. government spent $8 million on home meal delivery in Massachusetts. In 2015, that amount had dropped by 19 percent, to $6.5 million, according to the U.S. Aging Integrated Database, a clearinghouse for public information on people 65 and older.

Last budget cycle, in spring 2017, Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney, defended proposed cuts to publicly supported nonprofits and specifically called out Meals on Wheels as "not showing any results." The public backlash was swift, and cuts to Meals on Wheels were not in the final version of the budget.

Lutz said the Meals on Wheels program is one part of Elder Services' nutrition program — about 650 meals are delivered and an additional 200 are served on-site at senior centers for a $2 donation per meal Monday through Friday. The program cost $1.78 million in Berkshire County last year, he said — about $34,000 more than what Elder Services had budgeted.

"We have to fill that gap with local money," Lutz said. "We rely on foundations, on raising money."

If the local Meals on Wheels program had to make significant cuts because of a lack of funding, some of the options Lutz would have include: serving fewer meals, reducing how many days of the week meals are provided, reduce staff hours, limit participation, establish a waiting list, and/or eliminate accommodations for special diets and allergies.

Meanwhile, a number of seniors say they rely on Meals on Wheels and the dinners they provide at senior centers to live.

"For myself, I don't cook. It's a lot of work," said Dina Callahan, 79, of Lee, who was eating lunch with Puhalski at the Lee Senior Center. "It's very economical. And it's very good."

"This is a healthy meal I wouldn't have otherwise," said Rita Fontana, 97, also of Lee. "And it's good to eat with friends."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com and @kristinpalpini on Twitter.


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