Balanced budget burden should not fall on meal program recipients

BROOKLINE — I appreciate The Commons reporting on recent proposed cuts to senior meal programs in Windham County.

I am one of dozens of volunteer drivers who get mid-day meals out to seniors in the more rural areas of our county. I deliver to clients in Townshend, Brookline, and Newfane.

The Dam Diner in Townshend prepares and distributes meals for recipients in these towns and many others, at the behest of Senior Solutions of Windham and Windsor Counties, based in Springfield.

Senior Solutions' Executive Director Mark Boutwell is quoted extensively in your article, attempting to explain how his agency has arrived at this budget shortfall which compels him to cut programs. Without assigning blame, I would be interested to know if anyone holds Senior Solutions accountable for the management of their funds.

Mr. Boutwell said that “the guidelines (for receiving meals) were relaxed during Covid, and the rosters have grown tremendously but the budgets haven't.” I am not aware of any changes in criteria for receiving meals during Covid, and the number of people on my route has not grown significantly during Covid or because of Covid. He says that “part of the reassessment process is to determine if there are people who, under normal circumstances, don't meet the guidelines.”

As far as I know, the clients I deliver to all applied to receive meals, and were told they were eligible to receive meals, according to the criteria in place. None that I know of were granted special privileges during Covid which now that we are in “normal” circumstances do not apply.

Senior Solutions' strategy to balance their budget is apparently to reduce the number of people they serve by finding people who don't deserve to receive the services they've been told they're eligible for.

To do that, they sent out a letter to each Meals-on-Wheels recipient telling them of their need to make cuts due to their budget shortfall and asking clients to self-identify as no longer needing to receive meals. This is deeply inappropriate and unethical, in my opinion.

They are essentially trying to pin the blame for their budget problems on their clients, accusing them, in effect, of taking food from others who may be more needy. They are asking clients to assess whether their own level of need is greater than that of their neighbors. I'm sorry, this just seems wrong to me.

Regardless of Senior Solutions' internal issues, whatever they may be, or their statements to the public and the media, I would hope that funding for these vital programs - the need for which is growing as our population of elderly and financially challenged people grows - can be sustained at a level that allows for people who are receiving help to continue to receive help.

Programs like Brattleboro Senior Meals and the others throughout the county are almost entirely volunteer-run, and their people are already working overtime at little or no pay to try to meet the need in the area, simply because they care. They cannot and should not be expected to “do more with less,” because it's impossible.

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