Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels braces for fund cuts

Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 21, 2013 

Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels is bracing for a significant funding loss and might need to cut one day of service a month next year, an official said.

The meals program, part of the Kennewick-based Senior Life Resources Northwest, could lose up to $43,000, perhaps more, said director Marcee Woffinden.

Officials haven't made any decisions about how they would address the financial loss, although it appears "the least impactful ... is everybody loses a meal one day a month," Woffinden said.

That would mean the meal sites would close and home delivery would stop on that day. In some cases, clients would be given frozen meals ahead of time to make up for the lost day of delivery.

The meals program has an annual budget of about $1 million, with about 40 percent from state and federal money funneled through Southeast Washington Aging and Long Term Care. That agency is one of 13 designated area agencies on aging in the state.

The agency lost about $200,000 this year because of automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration, said director Lori Brown. It was able to dip into reserves to avoid passing on hefty cuts to groups such as Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels, she said.

But it's poised to lose another $200,000 in 2014 if federal lawmakers don't prioritize funding for Older Americans Act programs, Brown said, noting reliance on reserves can't continue.

An anticipated dip in state funding and a drop in United Way dollars also is contributing to the projected loss for Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels.

The program served more than 147,000 meals to the elderly and homebound in Benton and Franklin counties last year -- almost 90,970 meals through home delivery and 56,105 at seven meal sites.

Nationwide, the sequester has hit Meals on Wheels programs hard, leading to cuts in meal services and staff positions and growing waiting lists, according to information released in June by the Meals on Wheels Association of America.

Meanwhile, the population of Americans 65 and older is growing. That age group is expected to represent 19 percent of the population in 2030, up from 12.4 percent in 2000, according to the Administration on Aging, part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels estimates demand for its meals will grow almost 40 percent, to 204,727 meals, by 2030, according to its 2012 program report. Brown described the service as vital, saying "home-delivered meal service isn't just about the nutritious meal. That's a big part of it, but for some it's also the only contact they get during the day."

Woffinden urged concerned residents to contact their federal representatives and sign up to volunteer and/or donate to the local Meals on Wheels. She said the program has taken calls from clients worried it's in danger of going away altogether -- and that's not the case.

"The program has been around since 1974, and we will continue to serve our community. But we will have to make adjustments," Woffinden said.

She said she expects to see updated budget figures soon from Southeast Washington Aging and Long Term Care, and anticipates having a finalized budget mid- to late October.

To contact Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels, call 735-1911 or email www.homedeliveredmeals.org.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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