By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Meals on Wheels is a major investment in the lives of senior citizens, and state and federal leaders are being shortsighted in trying to squeeze funding from the program, a local nonprofit head says.
Jonathan Becker, executive director of Senior Services Plus based in Alton, minces no words when asked about the latest threatened loss of funds to the Meals program.
“It’s not cost effective to cut a program that saves the state and federal governments money,” he said. “It’s ludicrous that somebody would suggest doing something like that.”
Becker is reacting to the budget presented by the administration of President Donald Trump, which is proposing cuts to block grants that go toward spending on Meals on Wheels. Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said the program is one of many that are “just not showing any results.”
At the same time, Becker says, his agency faces continued delays in human services funding from the Illinois Legislature, which has been unable to reach a budget deal for the past two years, forcing nonprofit agencies like his to borrow money to meet needs.
“Holding our money back, making us pay to borrow money to carry zero percent interest loans for the state, it’s not a cost-effective way to do business,” he said.
The latest Meal on Wheels threats run counter to the wisdom of keeping seniors in their homes and out of assisted care, he said.
“If it costs the federal government, say, $3 a day to provide a meal, the cost of a Medicaid nursing home is literally $150 a day. For somebody at the federal level to say the program doesn’t work is just … I don’t even know how to quantify it,” he said.
SSP, which serves a six-county area of Metro East, delivers far fewer meals than it once did.
“We’ve taken hits over the last two years,” he said. “Two years ago at this time, we were delivering 650 (fresh) meals five times a week. We’re down to 420, delivering five frozen meals once a week. It’s not good, what’s happening.”
The meals are portioned-controlled and balanced. But there’s no guarantee that the recipient, often frail and homebound, is going to be preparing their frozen meal each day as hoped. Fresh meals, on the other hand, were always welcomed, he said.
An additional concern is there is no longer a daily safety check on such residents, who often have no one else stopping in to look after them, he said.
The federal government provides a match with the state of Illinois to provide half the overall cost. Senior Services Plus pays the other half. The Meals on Wheels receives about $470,000 a year from government sources, meaning SSP must raise another $470,000 on its own.
The cost of an individual meal is about $8.
“Some $4.20 per meal comes from federal money, routed through the state. We have to raise the other half,” he said.
“We ask for a $4 donation for each meal; we receive on average 43 cents,” Becker said. “United Way is picking up 61 cents on each meal.”
No recipient is denied meals based on ability to pay, he said.
Senior Services has had to think outside the box to come up with money for its Meals program.
Restaurant, catering, wellness and travel programs generate about $1 million a year. At least 10 percent to 15 percent of that is profit that goes back to Meals on Wheels support, he said.
Senior Services does catering for Head Start, three adult day services, the Edwardsville YMCA and various businesses.
“All the money we make in profit goes right back to support Meals on Wheels,” he said.
Times are hard now, and they are not going to get better. He said the growth of the senior population is going to create an explosion of need.
“There’s 10,000 people turning 65 every single day in this country for the next 20 years,” he said. “We’re not going to build 10,000 nursing home slots a day. That’s not a reality, so why would you cut a low-cost, cost-effective program provided through a state and federal match which is an effective and efficient use of taxpayers’ money?”
Becker said he did not know how much money is spent on the program but estimates a million Meals on Wheels meals get delivered across the country daily.
Senior Services Plus employs more than 400 people in the metro area.
“Our payroll each year is over $5 million each year. We have an enormous impact in our region,” he said. “Not-for-profits are now in the top five of employers of people in our region.”
He likens his agency’s situation to that of other nonprofits that have also suffered from state cutbacks, like Beverly Farm, a home for the developmentally disabled in Godfrey, and Challenge Unlimited, an Alton-based program that specializes in employment of those with disabilities.
He said his operation has the same economic impact as many businesses.
“We’re an employer; we spend $2 million a year in infrastructure support; we buy paper; we buy gas; we work with local for-profits to have our vehicles repaired. We support a lot of businesses ourselves, so when people talk about how they need to cut out these programs, and delaying payments, they are just hurting themselves.”