BRATTLEBORO — A $45,070 funding cut to Brattleboro Senior Meals has providers concerned and looking for ways to make up the shortfall without affecting seniors who rely on the program.
“We only found out about this six weeks ago, so it still has us scrambling,” executive director Cynthia Fisher said this week. “It has not impacted diners and meal recipients so far, and we're hoping they won't be impacted.”
Federal and state money comes to Brattleboro Senior Meals through the Older Americans Act, distributed to Windham and Windsor counties' meal preparers through Senior Solutions (formerly known as the Council on Aging for Southeastern Vermont), which made the cut.
Senior Solutions' executive director Mark Boutwell said his agency, based in Springfield, has also been affected, receiving just a 1.5 percent - or $29,614 - increase in funding since 2018, forcing him to make cuts.
“Those dollars help fund all our programs,” Boutwell said. “I've had to make cuts not only to senior meal programs, but I've also cut staff and raises. I've cut one half-time position and one full-time director position to half-time and made some other position reductions that will save us some money.”
He said that Senior Solutions has had to “implement reductions in our budget to reduce significant deficits. Our hope is that funding will increase in the future, but we may need more reductions over the next couple years if funding does not permanently improve.”
The nutrition contracts constitute 22 percent of the operating budget, so Boutwell called that program “one of the areas we had to look at when considering reductions.”
“We've been working with meal sites to trim their meal rosters by 25 percent, which certainly amounts to a budget cut,” he said, acknowledging the difficulty.
Boutwell explained that funding is “based on a complex equation the takes census numbers and area demographics into account to equitably distribute funding across all five area agencies on aging.”
During this same period, funding for Age Well, in northwest Vermont, increased by 8.75 percent, he said, while Senior Solutions' budgets “have been supported for several years on the leftover funds from various specific state and federal grants we receive.”
“Those carry-forward amounts have diminished over time, and our costs continue to increase,” Boutwell continued. “We have pursed grants but those don't support our bottom line.”
“We have continued to deplete these carry-forward funds, which help to support the meal sites. During the same period since 2018, home-delivered meal costs have more than doubled,” he said.
In the federal fiscal year 2022, which ended Sept. 30, Brattleboro Senior Meals received just over $214,640. For fiscal year 2023, which started Oct. 1, the program's funding capped at $169,570 - creating a $45,070 shortfall.
The Brattleboro Senior Meals' nutrition program serves about 130 individuals via Meals on Wheels annually and also serves weekday congregant lunches at the Senior Center.
In the past year, the program has served more than 40,000 in their homes and almost 3,000 at the Senior Center, said Fisher.
Brattleboro Senior Meals serves eligible clients in Brattleboro, West Brattleboro, Guilford, Dummerston, Vernon, and arranges meals for Marlboro residents.
A dilemma for all
“We're hoping it won't impact the diners or those receiving meals,” said Fisher.
Senior Solutions has “offered several options to cut our budget and meet the $45,000 shortfall,” she said.
Such options included eliminating congregant meals, discontinuing frozen meals that go out on weekends and holidays for those seniors who request them, and eliminating one day of congregant meals.
“We decided we did not want to do that,” Fisher said.
She and her team have opted to not fill an open position for an assistant cook, relying instead on one full-time and four part-time staff members and volunteers to absorb the workload.
She is also planning two fundraising letters for 2023, rather than one, to ask for donations. She also plans to ask the towns her program serves to increase funding for the program.
“We rely primarily on donations and fundraising and we'll have to amp those up,” Fisher said. “We're relying a lot on the people in the area. We rely on volunteers who work in the dining room, kitchen, and delivering meals. Finding drivers is something we're always looking for volunteers for.”
Senior Solutions to evaluate participants' eligibility
The cuts come at a difficult time, when the cost of everything has risen and life generally has been somewhat on tilt for many.
Fisher said she finds that “now, more than ever, it is identified that food insecurity is a big deal through all sectors of our populations.”
“It seems that quite often the seniors can be forgotten,” she said. “Everybody as a whole is looking at food insecurity for all citizens, and now they're asking us to limit the meals we send to our seniors.”
Senior Solutions has now opted to administer the intake process for those requesting meals, re-evaluating whether those participating are still eligible - a process Fisher herself has overseen until now.
“I'd think they'd be more eligible than ever right now,” she said. “That is why we're trying to make up for the shortfall in other ways, including looking at the food budget, which is already higher and out-of-budget because of the increase in cost of food and perishables. We're looking at our expenses.”
Boutwell said the eligibility review has been undertaken to balance feeding those who need a hand against the current financial limitations.
“We are looking very closely at the eligibility guidelines so that everyone who is eligible gets served, but given the budget cuts, there is a possibility there will be waiting lists,” he said. “We don't want to take people off and, at the same time, we do live within the eligibility guidelines of the Meals on Wheels program.”
Part of the challenge, said Boutwell, is that “the guidelines were relaxed during Covid, and the rosters have grown tremendously but the budgets haven't.” With the congregate meal sites closed during the lockdown and eligibility screening relaxed, the Meals on Wheels participation “surged.”
As a result, “part of the reassessment process is to determine if are there people who, under normal circumstances, don't meet the guidelines,” he said.
“Now, as the congregate sites start to reopen and rosters remain high, there will be a significant overall increase in meal counts that are supported by these federal and state funds,” Boutwell said.
“All this has created a widening funding gap that is not sustainable,” he said.
Asked if there are already waiting lists for any of the meals, Boutwell explained there are, but that they are temporary.
“At the moment, because we're working to get the meal contracts out, we have - for this week only - put any Meals on Wheels referrals on a waiting list,” he said.
“We will reinstate referrals next week,” Boutwell said. “We want to make sure people get meals. Absolutely.”
How to help
Clearly, both agency heads are frustrated and concerned.
While Fisher plans to ramp up a campaign to raise more funds from donors, anyone can donate by sending checks to Brattleboro Senior Meals to 207 Main St., Brattleboro, VT 05301 or at brattleboroseniormeals.org.
She also suggested contacting legislators in Montpelier and Washington to request more funding at the state and federal levels for the programs.
Fisher is also taking advantage of her organization's membership in the Vermont Foodbank and is soliciting donations of food from local producers.
Boutwell said he is also receiving phone calls from folks asking how they can help and will channel them to the Meals program. He said Senior Solutions will work with meal providers to research and apply for other grants and funding.
“We are applying for a Meals on Wheels America grant on behalf of meal sites and we will also make more [American Rescue Plan Act] money available to meal sites,” he said.
“We all must do our best to bring this growing, systemic gap between needs and funding to the attention of state and federal authorities,” Boutwell said.