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Politics

Maine Seniors Fear Hunger in Wake of Cuts to Meals Program

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Patty Wight
/
MPBN
Nick Dionne delivers meals to Flora Smith in Lewiston.

LEWISTON, Maine - Meals on Wheels programs across the U.S. and in Maine are scrambling to meet demand after an unexpected cut in federal funding. Maine was dealt a $130,000 blow, causing some programs to initiate waiting lists, or expand existing ones.

Advocates for the program say that Meals on Wheels can be a critical source of daily nutrition, as well as a chance to check on participants' general well-being.

Nick Dionne counts off hot meals he's packing for delivery. He's a driver for Meals on Wheels at Seniors Plus in Lewiston, which serves three counties: Androscoggin, Franklin, and Oxford. "So these are chicken teriyaki, and they are the hot meals."

Dionne will also deliver frozen meals to cover the days clients don't receive a delivery. Last year, Seniors Plus delivered meals to nearly 700 people who are home-bound and unable to cook for themselves.

"All right, we've got everything? We've got everything. Let's go." After loading up his car, Dionne heads to Flora and Shelly Smith's apartment. The mom, 80-year-old Flora, recently returned home from a rehabilitation center after a bad fall. Along with dropping off meals, Dionne wants to make sure she's recovering okay.

"It's Meals on Wheels!" Dionne heads to the kitchen and slips meals into a dark fridge that is otherwise empty. Flora Smith says she's disabled and her daughter has rheumatoid arthritis. They both use wheelchairs.

"If I didn't get those meals, I don't know what we'd do," Smith says, "because they really mean so much to us. Because today, we didn't have nothing - you know, nothing to eat. And I'm so glad we got Meals on Wheels today."

While the Smiths are getting much-needed meals, there are others in western Maine who aren't. Seniors Plus has a wait list of 106 people.

"The only time in the six years I've been here that we've had a waiting list was when we were under sequestration," says Betsy Sawyer-Manter. Sawyer-Maner is executive director at Seniors Plus. She says the wait list started a couple months ago.

Seniors Plus asks clients for a $3 donation for each meal, but gets only about 46 cents. The agency makes up the difference with donations and federal funds, but a couple weeks ago Sawyer-Manter found out that her agency's federal funding had dropped by $18,000 due to budget cuts.

"So we planned for a certain amount of meals and we brought those people on, and now we're sort of in a double-bind because not only - we don't have enough money to serve all the people we have on the program right now, but then the waiting list gets bigger and bigger and bigger," Sawyer-Manter says.

There are five agencies in Maine that operate Meals on Wheels programs, and according to the executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, they'll now have to make a calculated risk: Jessica Maurer says those agencies can either create wait lists or continue to enroll people in the hope that help is on the way from Washington.

"There is a belief we may see additional federal funding later on in the year, and so, essentially, you're being asked to upfront money that you don't have and that you don't have a promise of getting back," Maurer says.

Seventy-seven-year-old Barbara Stevens of Dixfield called recently to enroll in Meals on Wheels. She has upcoming surgery and had asked for daily meal service for about a month. But Stevens was told there wasn't enough funding to enroll her in the program. She decided she'd self pay, which costs $5 a meal. "I said, 'Well, I just won't pay some bills because I want to heal so I can get back outside and walk.' "

But just last week, Stevens got a call from Seniors Plus. An anonymous donor had paid $130 so Stevens can receive a months worth of meals and not fall behind on bills. "It's so overwhelming," she says. "It's just so touching. I'm so - I just cried. I couldn't help it."

Jessica Maurer says area agencies on aging are urging Maine's congressional delegation to reinstate funding. A pending state bill would make Meals on Wheels a covered service under MaineCare, which, Maurer says, would create a reliable income stream for the program.