Meals on Wheels

Meals & Wheels volunteer Nico Nguyen carries a cooler loaded with meals from the local office on Waco Drive.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson

Given that Meals on Wheels organizations have collectively become a virtual poster child for all that seems wrong-headed about the bare-bones 2018 federal budget proposed by the Trump White House this month, I asked Melody McDermitt, executive director of Waco’s Meals & Wheels, if she worries much about funding problems.

Her answer: No more than usual. Which means yes.

“I think we enjoy a lot of community support, both from volunteers and from donors,” she said after another lunch run in three counties Thursday (and, yes, it is Meals & Wheels, a reflection of unique services offered locally including transportation, even collaboration with Waco’s Animal Birth Control Clinic to get clients’ pets any grooming or veterinary care they might need). “The difficulty is it isn’t keeping up with how fast our aging population is growing.”

That’s another way of saying members of the Greatest Generation are fast ceding the senior stage to plenty of aging Baby Boomers. Consider just some of the relevant factors: The average age of lonely, local shut-ins who receive hot sustenance delivered to their residences: 80. Ironically, many Meals & Wheels drivers are themselves in their 70s and 80s.

One driver, attorney and former state lawmaker Tom Moore, is 98. He turns 99 in May.

Other bracing details:

  • The local Meals & Wheels receives some 45 percent of its funding from federal and state sources. Many funds come through the Older Americans Act, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The nonprofit matches these with private dollars to serve needy people meals in McLennan, Falls and Hill counties. The combination of federal, state and private funding (including some $60,000 from churches) is what McDermitt calls “a great example of successful public-private partnership.”
  • The local Meals & Wheels has a waiting list of 87 primarily because funds are limited even now. In January it had 50 people waiting, “but this list is climbing due to increased need.”
  • If you were to deliver meals locally, Meals & Wheels officials say, you would most likely encounter an 80-year-old white woman living alone.
  • Eight years ago, Meals & Wheels served about 650 people daily. Today the $1.5 million program prepares some 1,000 meals daily, the majority delivered to clients’ homes. The rest are prepared for senior centers.

McDermitt says she doesn’t know enough about the Trump budget to be anymore worried than she already is. Some press reports regarding cuts referred to the national office, which is solely administrative. Budget details, however, are scarce about such crucial programs as those under the Older Americans Act.

And while national press reports focused on wildly inconsistent comments by Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney concerning the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s community development block grants, those block-grant funds that come to Waco are funneled to other worthy needs including housing — not Meals & Wheels.

Then there’s funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Texas Department of Agriculture’s Texans Feeding Texans program. Again, without hard numbers, it’s unsure what’s happening at the federal level and just how any cuts there might impact funds allocated through the state agency.

Finally, to clear up at least some confusion on the bewildering mix of budget cuts: While Republican Congressman Bill Flores, whose district includes Waco, champions cutting certain budget programs and cutting taxes to spur economic growth that prompts people to land good-paying jobs, he stresses that he doesn’t mean Meals on Wheels clients should be in the harness in the twilight of life. Flores says he not only voted to fund through 2019 the Older Americans Act, which McDermitt says is so crucial to the local Meals & Wheels, he has vowed to continue support of the program in Congress. Aside from any humanitarian motive, Flores’ support also makes sense from a strictly conservative viewpoint.

As McDermitt notes, Meals on Wheels is a compassionate program but also a fiscally responsible investment. She says it costs $6 a day to produce and deliver a meal. Research shows this keeps seniors healthier and independent, allowing them to remain in their homes instead of winding up in Medicaid-financed nursing homes at, say, $150 a day or being hospitalized for malnutrition and dehydration at $1,500 a day. In short, she says, “We can feed a senior for one year for approximately the same cost as one day in a hospital.”

Flores isn’t the only Texas Republican lawmaker hearing about concern regarding Meals on Wheels. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, majority whip, is co-sponsoring a bill to increase the tax deduction for charitable use of passenger automobiles to deliver meals to homebound individuals who are elderly, disabled or frail. The bill would shift the deduction from 14 cents per mile to the standard business rate, currently 53.5 cents per mile.

In doing so, Cornyn says, the legislation (co-sponsored with Maine independent Angus King) “would bring equity and fairness to the millions of Americans who volunteer their time and resources to deliver meals and would help ensure that meal-delivery programs remain strong and continue to help those in need.” The bill could benefit some 2 million volunteer drivers.

All things considered, no one should offer eulogies for Meals on Wheels programs just yet, here or anywhere else. As Congressman John Katko, a Republican colleague of Flores from New York, noted in an interview about Meals on Wheels and any idea of sacking federal support for it: “My mother would kick my butt because she delivered Meals on Wheels for 20 years.”