FAIRFIELD — The “new normal” sees Cathy Hall, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Solano County, soliciting local city governments for money.
The fairly new executive director knew she was walking into an underfunded nonprofit more than a year ago, but the thought of scrambling to find money to feed needy seniors still galled her. It’s especially galling to her because despite an increase in need and increased costs, much of the forced solicitation is due to slashed funding from the federal government.
A full 70 percent of Solano County’s program is funded by the feds.
“When you look at the population (we) serve, why is it OK for (that) segment of the population who worked hard . . . to now possibly not have food?” she said, rhetorically. “In California, it just boggles the mind.”
In Solano County, the decreased funding forced a reduction in days the hot lunches were served at local senior centers. Rio Vista was cut from five days to two; Dixon, Benicia, Marina Towers in Vallejo and Suisun City were cut by two days; and the McBride Senior Center in Vacaville lost a day.
The largest senior center in the county, Florence Douglas in Vallejo, was spared cuts and until this week, the senior center in Fairfield was also spared. It was announced Thursday that Fairfield will lose one day effective the week of Nov. 4.
The cuts could get worse. Further funding cuts or delays in funding could see additional reductions at the senior centers and the start of a waiting list for home-delivery clients, Hall said.
Leanne Martinson, executive director for the Area Agency on Aging, which oversees government funding for Meals on Wheels in Solano and Napa counties, said waiting lists are now “not uncommon.”
“It’s sad but it’s been determined to be needed in some areas,” she said.
Meals on Wheels fills two voids when it comes to feeding Solano County seniors: the home delivery program, which delivers a frozen meal daily to about 450 people; and the congregate meals, served hot to about 200 seniors at various senior centers.
Between the economy tanking over the past few years, sequestration, less government funding in general and the recent partial government shutdown, Meals on Wheels programs throughout Northern California are hurting and looking for new ways, such as vigorous fundraising, to make up the growing funding gap.
“It’s a whole change in thinking and philosophy,” said Lori Espinosa, the operations manager for the county Meals on Wheels program, which is housed in Suisun City.
The nonprofit organization has put into play numerous fundraising efforts, including golf tournaments and a wine-and-food pairing at the Tomato Festival. A grant venture based on volunteers with the Blue Devil Bingo is in the works and could bring is as much as $12,000 a year.
Hall used the term “desperation” and Espinosa used the word “necessity” for the new push to raise money. They both agreed that it’s “the new normal.”
Each county’s program is funded with a blend of federal money, various grants, fundraising, local donations and client contributions. Martinson said federal funding was never intended to fund the entire program, but said “the fact that the base or core funding hasn’t increased, but decreased, is problematic.”
Client contributions have also fallen, Hall said. While the congregate and home-delivery meals’ combined cost averages around $6 to $7 to prepare – the figure includes everything from food costs to transportation and labor – the most-recent figures from Fairfield show that average home delivery client contributes 53 cents and the average congregate client pays 33 cents.
“We understand why (it’s gone down), but that doesn’t help,” Hall said.
Hall said that while Meals on Wheels has been hurt by the economy, so have the clients and so have the hundred-plus volunteers who deliver the meals to the seniors.
Right now they have 142 volunteers, said Gina George, the sites and routes manager. That number is down from 175 a few years ago. In some areas, such as Vallejo, there is even a shortage of volunteers. George blamed the economy.
“A lot can’t afford to do it anymore,” she said.
Many of the volunteers they have now are doing much more than just one route, she said. There are more than 20 routes throughout the county.
Meals on Wheels Solano County has only two full-time employees: cook Larry Blount and kitchen manager Geri Black. Both are seniors and both have been with Meals on Wheels for more than a decade. They can’t imagine being anywhere else and can’t help but worry about the future for their clients.
Black saw the funding begin to tighten up around seven years ago.
“We do the best we can,” she said. “It’s the home deliveries I’m more concerned about. So far, we haven’t had to cut them back.”
To combat the financial losses, Hall will continue to solicit money. She’s put out the word to various cities – she asked the mayor of Benicia for $6,000 and at a recent Rio Vista City Council meeting asked for a $9,000 sponsorship to reinstate the three days cut from its congregate program. The council approved $4,000, which will give back one meal to the senior center when the funds are received by Meals on Wheels.
While it’s a Band-Aid, it doesn’t begin to solve the long-term problem of underfunded senior programs.
Martinson said the Older Americans Act – and its related programs, including Meals on Wheels – is supposed to be a safety net. But what she sees is decreased funding instead of increased funding while the number of seniors in need has risen, and so have the costs to run the programs.
“You would think the policymakers would realize that once programs are established and meeting a need, when the population and need increases, the support should increase as well,” she said. “They have to know that these are really cost-effective programs and these are people who really do need help.”
Hall is much more blunt in her assessment of the domino-effect that she said hurts not only the nonprofit, but everyone from its funding sources to its clientele.
“Bottom line, when the government uses nonprofit funding cuts to balance a budget, it impacts everyone in a negative manner.” she said.
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.