Severe winter, decreases in donations strain Meals On Wheels budget

Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Waterbury Republican-American
Waterbury, CT

Delphine Sanders tried to get a plate from her kitchen cabinet Tuesday morning, but rising from her wheelchair and standing on her one foot was too difficult.

So when the 83-year-old resident of the Nottingham Terrace senior citizen apartment building was handed lunch and supper from Meals on Wheels, she gushed with appreciation.

"God sent them to the world," she said. "That was a blessing."

But with winter weather dealing several financial blows to the program and rumors of cuts to its government funding, it's getting more difficult for Meals on Wheels to deliver that blessing.

Lisa LaBonte, director of senior nutrition services at New Opportunities Inc., said the snowstorms over the past several weeks have led to more demand for meal delivery, and snow-packed streets have made those deliveries more difficult and expensive.

"We really struggled this winter because of the weather," she said.

The Waterbury-based agency delivers lunch and dinner to more than 600 people, mostly senior citizens, in the city and surrounding towns, five days a week.

Some stay with the program a long time, others receive meals for a few weeks or months after an operation, then drop out. But with the snow preventing many from leaving their homes to go grocery shopping, more are staying on the program's rosters for longer periods of time, LaBonte said.

"The other problem we've been running into, and is a strain on our budget, is it's taken our drivers forever to deliver those meals," she said, adding that delivery trucks get stuck so often on snow-packed streets that the program averages about two tows a day -- a cost that adds up.

In addition, she said, drivers who work at an hourly rate and normally take about three hours to make food deliveries now take about five hours because of winter road hazards.

When the service has to close because of the weather, it sends out emergency meal packs for people to keep in their freezers. I has had to do so five times this year, she said.

The program is supported by federal and state money, and also asks its clients to donate $5 each day. But the economy has cut into those donations, LaBonte said.

"When our clients have to choose between prescriptions and heat, because ours is a donation we usually get the short end of that," she said, adding, however, that certain clients are funded through the Connecticut Home Care Program.

This year the agency received $781,688 in federal and state funds for Meals on Wheels and $573,632 for congregate meals -- those served to groups at nursing homes and senior centers -- an agency representative said.

U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, who spent Tuesday morning with Meals on Wheels delivering food to the elderly, said government proposals to roll back spending on social services to 2006 levels could mean a 10 percent to 20 percent cut in funding for the program.

The desire to cut back on government spending "shouldn't come at the expense of seniors in Waterbury who need Meals on Wheels to stay alive," he said. "Meals on Wheels is one thing government does right."

One of the ways the program makes up for budgetary shortfalls is through fundraising. Every March, several grocery stores in the region, including the Adams chain, participate in the "Buy a Wheel" campaign, in which shoppers purchase a paper wheel for $1, and that donation is made to the program.

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