Elderly face cuts in food program Anticipating national budget balance, area plan trims 20%


Bernie Stein is losing his job Dec. 1, so he will work for nothing to keep a food program for the elderly going at two Towson apartment buildings.

The Baltimore County Department of Aging has trimmed the Eating Together program for senior citizens about 20 percent because of real and anticipated federal funding cuts, and is about to terminate several part-time employees who administer it.

Departments and commissions on aging throughout the country are considering or implementing similar cuts in two major national food programs for the elderly -- Eating Together and Meals on Wheels -- as Congress works toward a balanced budget.

Mr. Stein, 76, who owned a bakery in midtown Manhattan until he and his wife moved to Baltimore to be near their daughter, operates the Eating Together program at Virginia Towers, an apartment house for the elderly on Virginia Avenue.

Next month, he also will operate the same program at the Tabco Towers high-rise for the elderly on Joppa Road. Tabco serves lunch, Virginia Towers has dinner.

"It's too important to let go, so I'll keep doing it as a volunteer," Mr. Stein said.

Eating Together provided five meals a week at 40 county sites -- 1,300 meals daily -- until Nov. 1, when the number was reduced to four and a limit placed on the number of meals served each day.

Daily meals served at Tabco Towers averaged between 35 and 40, but are now limited to 37. "If you're No. 38, I have to say, 'I'm sorry, I can't serve you,' " said Mary Hess, the Eating Together manager there. She will lose her job Dec. 1.

Meals are catered and cost $2.98 each. Seniors are asked to donate up to $2 toward it. Some donate more, some nothing, depending on their resources.

"We had to cut something," said Charles L. Fisher Jr., director of the Department of Aging, who expects a shortfall of $160,000 to $180,000 in his budget.

"We have enough information to make the reductions now. We don't want to wait and then have to play catch-up because it will only make things more difficult. It will help us save some other programs, like the ombudsman's office, health screening and legal aid."

The Eating Together program in Baltimore County could be dropped if volunteers aren't found to replace paid staff, who register diners for each meal, arrange for volunteers to serve it, keep the books and do the banking.

"That would be a last resort," Mr. Fisher said. "In fact, we'll restore the cuts if things turn out better than we now project."

Maryland will lose about 109,000 Eating Together meals from the 2.5 million that are funded annually with federal and state money, according to the state Office on Aging. The vital Meals on Wheels for the elderly will lose 27,000 meals out of 1.4 million.

"Losing these meals will have an incredibly negative impact," said Sue Ward, director of the Office on Aging. "When the elderly don't eat right, their physical and mental health can decline rapidly. Sometimes these meals are the only ones a senior citizen might have on any given day."

Bernie Stein said that the opportunity senior citizens have for socializing is almost as important as the meal. "For some, it's the only time they get together with friends," he said.

Each jurisdiction has its plan for handling budget cuts. Howard and Anne Arundel counties, for example, are waiting to see what Congress will finally do with the budget. Baltimore City, which serves 2,500 meals daily at 71 sites, has cut about 400 meals on a weekly basis, according to Toby Felcher, assistant to the director of the city Commission on Aging.

Robert Schap, director of Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland, which serves Baltimore, and Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll, and Harford counties, said he expects about a 5 percent cut in his budget.

"Anything is possible, but more than that, we're worried about the next seven years because Congress has vowed to balance the budget," he said. "We expect to take a sizable hit."

Both programs are funded through the Older Americans Act. The House has trimmed 5 percent from funding in the next budget, but the Senate has increased it slightly. The difference in the two bills has not been reconciled in a House-Senate conference committee.

Nationally, the Meals on Wheels program is funded by $92 million federal grants plus private donations. Thousands of volunteers deliver a hot and a cold meal valued at $4.50 apiece once a day to the homebound elderly.

Judy Williams, president of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services, a nonprofit organization in Grand Rapids, hTC Mich., that monitors programs and advocates for the elderly, expects money for senior citizen food programs will be cut by Congress.

"Senior citizen agencies all over the country have been stretching dollars for 10 years because funding has been flat," she said. "A cut could cause lasting damage, and makes me afraid for the elderly clients, especially the homebound."

Peggy Bradford, head of the Agency on Aging for Somerset, Wicomico, Worcester and Dorchester counties on the Eastern Shore, said her Eating Together and Meals on Wheels programs -- which account for nearly 1,000 meals five days a week -- will be cut 10 percent.

"My real concern is Meals on Wheels because it serves our most vulnerable citizens," she said. "They're the neediest of the needy."

At Virginia Towers recently, about 35 senior citizens were taking the cuts in stride during a dinner of veal, mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, and spice cake.

"They have to cut somewhere; they've been very liberal with us," said Marguerite Heil, 93. She said her daughter will bring her a meal Wednesdays, the designated meal-less day at Tabco and Virginia Towers.

Olga Amy, 90, said she felt "fortunate to have as much as we do."

"I'm proud to make a contribution," Hazel Middleton, 72, said of the meal she will be losing. "We've been treated very fairly."

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