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Prices pinch nonprofits

The Baltimore Sun

Isaac Brown no longer drives, has trouble walking short distances and could barely carry a bag of groceries from the market to his third-floor apartment in East Baltimore even if he wanted to.

So the 89-year-old depends on Meals on Wheels, a popular charitable service, to bring him two meals a day - one hot, one cold - to get him through the week.

"The food is fine," said Brown on a recent day, casually regarding the plastic trays of pasta and vegetables and other healthful choices in front of him. But it's the volunteers who deliver the meals Brown likes most. Those who drop off food often stop to chat, just for a few minutes, about Brown's ash-colored house cat Midnight, or his travails with a therapeutic exercise bike.

"You start developing a rapport with some of the clients," said David Butz, who, with a friend, volunteers to deliver meals once a week to Brown and other homebound elderly residents. "They say to you, 'Are you coming back next week?' It's good to be able to say 'yes.' "

But rising gas prices are straining the budgets of Meals on Wheels volunteers, who pay to fill up their own tanks. The nonprofit, which serves 1,500 clients in the Baltimore area, also has been hit by rising food and supply prices. And other agencies and organizations that provide transportation-based services to the area's elderly are feeling the pain as well.

"For many of our volunteers, they're on a fixed income, and they're doing 20 meals and 25 miles each way ... to check on these folks and serve them their food, and it's killing them financially," said Tom Grazio, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland. "We've had folks say, 'I can't do it anymore.' If we get enough people saying that, what happens to our clients?"

Regular gas prices reached an average of $3.73 a gallon in Maryland last week, according to AAA, up from $2.99 a year ago. The spike has pinched individuals and families, but - in many cases - sucker-punched transportation-based service providers.

Partners in Care, a nonprofit that helps older and disabled adults in Anne Arundel County remain independent in their homes, said it has been gearing up for fuel cost-related issues for several years by stashing away grant money to reimburse volunteers who drive seniors to appointments or on errands.

"We knew it was happening and we tried to get prepared for it a couple of years ago," said Maureen Cavaiola, co-founder of Partners in Care. "But we never expected it would get to this point. It's going to be a huge deal if this gas continues to go up."

Cavaiola said Partners in Care could end up asking for more state help if costs continue to rise.

Some of Baltimore City's contractors who work with the elderly already have begun lobbying for more money, said John P. Stewart, executive director of the Baltimore Commission on Aging and Retirement Education.

"A number of our vendors have told us repeatedly over the last several months that they're going to have to request increased funding" because of rising gas and fuel prices, Stewart said. "Vendors are telling us it's outrageous for them. Their gas bills have gone up; our food providers ... are telling us their BGE bills have doubled. And we're telling them, unfortunately, we are in no position to look at doubling their contracts."

But Meals on Wheels, which provides lunch and dinner meals for elderly residents in five area counties and parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties, could find itself in a worse situation: possibly limiting home deliveries by volunteers to once per week. That would help to offset a 9 percent increase in the fees of wholesalers who deliver food and other products to the agency.

"That's not something I want to do," Grazio said. "This is a business model I don't want to abandon. But the current environment - that is, the economy - makes it harder and harder to be successful."

It's not something the volunteers or clients want to see happen, either.

Charles Kane relies on David Butz and his co-worker Asnake Hailegiorghis to come by with food, since arthritis has made it increasingly painful for the 86-year-old to move around outside of his home on East Baltimore Street. Kane said he also is emotionally "fed" by Hailegiorghis' weekly conversations.

"He sits with me sometimes and he talks with me," Kane said. "I got to eat. But [now] I have somebody to talk to."

Grazio said problems such as Kane's will only get worse as America grays.

People over the age of 65 now represent about 13 percent of the population, experts say, but will make up 25 percent by 2040. And, according to demographers at the Brookings Institution, Maryland's oldest population group - those over age 85 - will have increased 57.1 percent from 2000 to 2010.

"As America lives longer, there will be more and more of this population," Grazio said. "What's going to happen is, we're going to have to go to [donors and funders] and say, 'We're going to have to start paying people [for delivering meals.] And after a while, they're going to say, 'Wait. We can't do this anymore.' And then people are going to go hungry. And that's the future of growing old in America."

Transportation costs aren't the only escalating bills Meals on Wheels faces. Food and energy prices have increased, as have the costs of packaging all those meals.

Grazio said "government financial support for the home delivery program has been flat since 2000," but food costs are up 12 percent. And those plastic trays, forks and rolls of protective shrink wrap are costing the agency more, as well.

"Because plastic is a petroleum product, those costs have just gone up exponentially," said Faye Carey, director of resource development at Meals on Wheels. She estimated the increase at 20 percent.

One possible solution: Meals on Wheels has started asking local companies to adopt a weekly route and encourage their employees to deliver food to seniors.

Butz, 37, who is vice president of software development of Social Solutions, a performance management software company based in Canton, already encourages his employees to do just that.

Butz has been delivering meals for the nonprofit for two years and doesn't intend to stop. In fact, volunteering is so important to Butz that the only thing higher gas prices might force him to do, he said, is work from his home in Havre de Grace more often.

"That would be pretty sad, if they couldn't get people to drop off food," said Butz. "It's good for me. I just like to do it. I think it's good karma."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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