State cuts bite into senior meal program in Yakima County

MABTON -- More state budget cuts are hitting home. Jan. 20 marked the last day senior citizens in Granger and Mabton were able to gather for a hot meal subsidized by Yakima County.

What's more, the end of the Mabton meals program also could threaten the future of the Mabton Community Center, created by three local women.

More than 30 seniors gathered four days a week at the Mabton and Granger sites. Although they will have the option of riding a bus to meals programs in Sunnyside and Grandview, it's not certain how many will actually be able to use the transportation.

Gaye Vandermyn, one of the three founders of the Mabton Community Center and site manager for the meals program, said even if seniors take a bus to another community, they will lose a social network important to their well-being.

"It's not just the food support but the social contact," she said. "It still won't give seniors that sense of community they get here. They see their neighbors and friends and keep in touch on what is going on."

Yakima County Food Services, which is shutting down the meal sites, also cut the number of meals served at the Harman Center in Yakima. Three employees of the program, two part-timers, were also laid off, said director Jerry Baldoz.

Baldoz said the loss of state funds will cost his program about $100,000 over the next two years, which means 20,000 fewer meals served each year.

The fate of the two sites was sealed when voters in November passed Initiative 1107, which repealed the sales tax on bottled water, soda and candy. State lawmakers proposed to use some of those revenues to offset the loss of state general fund support for senior programs.

"I understand that people voted down that tax. But I don't think they understood where a lot of that money was going," Baldoz said.

Lori Brown, director of Aging and Long Term Care for the southeast Washington area, said the state's cut cost the agency $172,000 for the region through the rest of the current budget year, which ends June 30.

ALTC provides funding for the county food services program that was projected to serve a total of 130,000 meals this year, including 52,000 meals at rural sites such as Mabton and Granger and 78,000 delivered meals for homebound seniors.

Mabton and Granger are the two smallest of the nine sites in Yakima County served by the program.

But the Mabton closure could ripple through the small community. Vandermyn, who formed the community center along with Bertha Olivarez and Betty Carlyle, said they relied on funding from the meal program to cover utility costs and insurance.