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As Demand Booms, Legislature Considers Bill to Boost Meals on Wheels Funding

Patty Wight
Maine Public

There are more than 100 people in Maine on a waitlist to receive Meals on Wheels. The actual need is likely much greater, according to advocates, and the program is at the mercy of fluctuating funding sources.

On Friday, Maine lawmakers will consider a bill that would allocate half a million dollars to the program. Supporters say it would eliminate the waitlist for a program that provides more than just meals.

Every Wednesday, 88-year-old Marcelle Breton of Sabattus can count on a knock on the door from Meals on Wheels. During a recent visit, Melissa Smith of Seniors Plus, which provides Meals on Wheels to three counties, unpacks a chicken dinner, a fruit snack and a shelf-stable meal for future use.

Breton has been receiving Meals on Wheels for about a year now, after a stint in a nursing home. He lost his left eye to cancer and is paralyzed from the waist down.

“I’m stuck in the electric chair. I do some of my work here in the house, do my laundry, do some cooking, but very little of it. So all the help I can get, I take it,” he says.

Breton also likes the weekly visit. His wife passed away several years ago, and his daughter sees him on weekends.

“I’m stuck in the house. I can’t go outside or nothing. I can’t walk,” he says.

Breton is among the more than 4,000 home-bound seniors in Maine who rely on Meals on Wheels every year, and there are more than 100 waiting. Most are in central and northern Maine, says Jessica Maurer of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging. But the number is artificially low, she says, especially in Aroostook County.

“Aroostook has actually capped their waitlist, because they don’t have sufficient funds to go out and do the assessment, and they don’t want to do the assessment when there’s just no food or hope that the person would be able to receive the service anytime soon,” she says.

Seniors Plus in Lewiston started a waitlist in January that has already swelled to 92 people, says the director of community services Holly Zielinski.

“The need has just grown unbelievable. We’re serving 1,000 more meals a month than we were a year ago at this time,” she says.

As the demand for Meals on Wheels has increased, Zielinski says funding hasn’t kept pace. The program’s budget comes from a variety of sources, from federal programs and block grants to nonprofits, foundations, businesses and individual donations.

The future of federal funding is in question, due to a proposal from President Donald Trump to eliminate certain block grants and reduce the Department of Health and Human Services’ budget.

Zielinski recently traveled to Washington, D.C., for a policy update.

“We were told that we should be looking at 18-20 percent cuts. And that’s really gloom and doom, because really, that’s a significant amount,” she says.

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
Holly Zielinski

The state of Maine does provide some funding. It allocates about $1.5 million a year to the state’s five area agencies on aging for a range of programs, including Meals on Wheels. But a bill that the Health and Human Services Committee will consider Friday would allocate half a million dollars specifically to Meals on Wheels for the next two years.

Democratic state Rep. Scott Hamann, who sponsors the bill, says it’s enough to eliminate the waitlist, and the bill would also create a work group.

“That will assess what the future need will be, and then offer recommendations back to the Health and Human Services Committee to offer future funding recommendations,” he says, which would hopefully prevent future waitlists.

A spokeswoman for Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on the bill until the public hearing. Maurer says she’s not aware of any opposition, but there can be a lack of understanding of the effect of the program. It often serves as a wellness check, as well as an important source of nutrition for seniors.

“The reality is, the simple delivery of a meal can keep a person living in their home for a significantly longer period of time than they would have to potentially be institutionalized,” she says.

When Jeannette Beaulieu of Lewiston returned home from a hospital stay earlier this year, she relied on Meals on Wheels because she didn’t have the strength to cook.

“I didn’t have to force myself to do it. I couldn’t even do it. It was too tiring,” she says.

After a month, she got her energy back and now cooks her own meals. She says she wanted to give her Meals on Wheels spot to someone else who needs it.