Jeff Jardine

Meals on Wheels gets major mileage out of minimal funding

Jim Brown began his day in Ceres on Wednesday morning by packing up enough meals to last 28 people five days, and some of them seven.

Then he loaded them into a Meals on Wheels van, drove away from the Howard Training Center, a nonprofit organization in Ceres, and began his route. At most stops, the residents knew him by name and greeted him warmly. He represents a welcome face and sight in their lives each week: a tall, dignified gent bearing free food to those considered homebound.

They are 80 or older and live alone or with a homebound spouse, cannot drive and have no access to public transportation. Or they are 60 to 79 with the same conditions, but also are physically or mentally impaired.

Most are on fixed incomes and rely on Brown and others like him for their meals, or at least enough to augment their diets. Likewise, the Howard Training Center is on a limited budget. It must buy the ingredients for the meals. It pays retirees like Brown to deliver. It also pays its developmentally disabled clients based on their individual performances while training them to find mainstream jobs. The nonprofit also must maintain the fleet of vans it uses to deliver the Meals on Wheels and to transport workers to the 13 congregate sites throughout the county where the elderly are served meals five days a week.

Meals on Wheels drivers deliver 2,250 meals a week in Stanislaus County, said Dennis Pinaire, the agency’s support services manager. The congregate site program at the 13 sites daily bring the total to over 20,000 meals a month.

So when the Trump administration last week announced plans to slash social services funding to hundreds of domestic programs, it felt like a punch in the gut to those who work with those in need, said Carla Strong, the Howard Training Center’s executive director.

True, as USA Today pointed out, the Trump budget doesn’t specifically target the Meals on Wheel program. In fact, nationwide it receives no direct federal funding at all. But it does benefit from community block development grants, which President Ford established to give state and local governments more control of how they spend their money.

Howard Training Center in fiscal 2016-17 received $29,772 in block grant money from Modesto and $10,000 from Turlock on top of the $65,000 it gets monthly from Stanislaus County’s Area Agency on Aging for senior meals. So the total block grant money represents a small portion of the $820,000 the agency spends annually on the senior meals program. Strong said the program expects to lose $233,000 at the congregate sites and $86,000 on Meals on Wheels. They make up the losses through fundraisers and other community support. And chef Kayrin Coddington embarked on an efficiency campaign to get more for less.

What Strong and her people can tell you is that the Meals on Wheels and the congregate site programs absolutely are vital to the people they serve. Brown and the others who deliver the meals are required to have personal contact with their clients to look for and report signs of physical, mental or emotional, or financial abuse.

Where none of those exists, they sometimes deliver to some sad circumstances, like a family in Modesto in which the wife is physically disabled and lives in the living room, the husband is blind and stays in the bedroom and their son also is disabled. Brown checks on them each time he visits.

In many cases, the only other person the clients see all week is their Meals on Wheels driver.

“It would be up to God, what would happen if I didn’t get the meals,” recipient Josephine Johnson told me.

Mary Souza, another recipient, is fortunate to have relatives and friends in the area. But that short visit from Brown each week is a high point.

“I’m so glad I get to see him,” she said, giving him a big hug. “I just love him.”

Peter Joseph, a Korean War veteran who lives in Modesto’s Airport District, began receiving the meals after injuring his hand about three months ago. Without the meals, “I’d probably starve,” he said.

If the government truly did eliminate the money that eventually trickles down to the program, “that wouldn’t be very nice,” client Pat Langley said. “But there would be nothing I could do about it.”

“We’d probably be eating cereal,” Modesto’s Richard Marlowe said, during a chat with Brown.

Leota Hernandez, who spent two decades selling real estate, relies on Meals on Wheels after having open-heart surgery with post-op complications followed by pneumonia and, a year later, a stroke.

“They are taking away from the elderly,” she said. “Taking away from us. I worked for that.”

And never underestimate value of the social interaction, Brown said. It can make his day as well.

“One lady I deliver to ... ,” he mused. “She’s 86. She keeps telling me, ‘What I really need is a man, about six-foot-two’. ”