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State budget impasse slams brake on Meals on Wheels in Illinois

Meals on Wheels volunteers prepping food. PHOTO/U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Katrina Heikkinen, 2011

A downstate nonprofit providing meals to the elderly has seen its service severely cutback due to the state’s budget impasse.

Senior Services Plus is an organization that serves seniors with home care, wellness programs and Meals on Wheels. The Alton-based agency, which serves Madison and St. Clair counties, says the state owes it $1.5 million.

As a result, the Meals on Wheels program has been forced to cut back on well-being checks and food options.

Jonathan Becker, the organization’s executive director, said budget cuts have also forced his agency to limit the number of weekly meals for seniors dependent on the program. “It really stinks because instead of providing services for five-day-a-week daily checks we’re only doing one day, and the whole thing is just not good,” Becker said.

The cuts have also affected the way the food is served to seniors. The organization now has to serve five frozen meals compared to five hot meals it originally offered. In addition, its Meals on Wheels deliveries have gone from two days down to one.

Senior Services Plus delivered 600 meals a day before the cuts but are now down to 378. Becker said that region-wide there are about 300 seniors on a waiting list and 150 for his agency.

Many seniors rely on Meals on Wheels because they may not have family they can rely on. Sixty-percent of the seniors who depend on services from the organization dont have family in the area. For some seniors, contact with the drivers or Senior Services Plus volunteers is their only contact with others.

The cuts are impacting more than just the Meals on Wheels program. In order to maintain services for seniors, the organization has had to lay off staff and reduce work hours for Meals on Wheels drivers.

A national study conducted by researchers at Brown University Center for  Gerontology  and Healthcare Research reveals that Meals on Wheels is one of the most cost-effective ways to support senior citizens aging in their home. Meals on Wheels also provides 33 percent of seniors’ nutrition.

Other agencies serving the elderly have also been impacted by the budget impasse.

Age Options, a nonprofit organization that serves the suburban Cook County area, has been forced to make cuts. The Oak Park organization is one of 13 agencies in Illinois and provides $17 million in state and federal funding for other agencies.

The organization, which helps to connect seniors and their caregivers to resources, has implemented a hiring freeze and reduced training stemming from funding cuts. Diane Slezak, chief operating officer at Age Options, said the organization has agencies that are being furloughed and are near shutting down.

Slezak said at the beginning of the fiscal year there was no money for Meals on Wheels but there were over 100 court actions forcing the state to pay, which allowed home delivered meals to be reinstated. Funding for home delivered meals was finally released to Age Options last month.

Slezak, however, warned that Meals on Wheels is not out of hot water yet. 

It doesnt mean that its out of the woods because the money for social services that we receive cascades through everything,Slezak said.

Anne Marie Cunningham, a senior leader at Jane Addams Senior Caucus, echoed Slezaks sentiments, maintaining that some seniors who are feeling these cuts from other parts of the state will eventually make their way to Chicago. The Caucus and other supporters of senior care have been in Springfield several times so far this year, including last month, to speak out against incessant state cuts.

Cunningham received Meals on Wheels at a time when she was really sick after an 18-month stay at a nursing home.

Eventually when I got home I was getting Meals on Wheels,” she said. “I really understand what a blessing they are.”

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