With Funding In Question, Need For Meals On Wheels On The Rise

May 26, 2015

As lawmakers in Concord continue to work through the budget process, funding for the Meals on Wheels program has been in the middle of the House and Senate’s differences.

The House budget included a 50 percent reduction to payments that in part fund the program.  Last week the Senate’s fiscal committee restored $10 million in funding for in-home services, including Meals on Wheels.  But it’s far from a done deal—the full Senate has yet to vote on it and lawmakers have until the end of June to approve a budget.

In Hillsborough County, drivers plot out 60 meal routes through 31 towns four times a week.

Meals on Wheels volunteer driver David Gilmour opens the front door of a sparse apartment in downtown Nashua.

"Effie, I’ve got your hot meal," he says.

Gilmour enters a dimly-lit room where the frail, but smiling Effie sits patiently by a small table with a nearly completed jigsaw puzzle splayed out before her.

St. Joseph Community Services, which runs Meals on Wheels in Hillsboro County, asks that we not use her last name.

Effie is convalescing at home from surgery. She broke the femur in her right hip.

Effie says without Meals on Wheels, she'd probably be hungry some days.

Anyone who shops for food at the supermarket knows how the bills add up at the cash register, especially when you’re sticking to a nutritious diet.

"You can fill your belly with food, but it’s not necessarily healthy food," said Meghan Brady, president of St. Joseph Community Services. "Not helpful for keeping you well and living in your own home."

The program relies on volunteers to deliver close to 370,000 meals a year to about 1,400 homebound seniors and disabled adults.  Those who receive the meals get them for free or make a small donation. Each meal costs St. Joseph about $8, which adds up to nearly $3,000 a year for one person. 

But Brady believes that saves everyone money. She says one year in the county nursing home costs more than $100,000.

St. Joseph’s relies on donations and funding from the state.  Brady estimates it will lose $850,000, or 28 percent of its overall budget if the House budget goes forward.

And Brady says each year, the number of older low-income people in the program shoots up – and not only because the state’s population is aging.

Seniors are also becoming more isolated.

"For about two-thirds of our clients, the only person they see on delivery day is our driver," Brady said. "For 20 percent of our clients, they see no one other than our driver all week."

David Gilmour stops at the home of next client, David B. He steers his wheelchair toward his visitor.

"When you knocked, I was in the middle of checking my blood sugar and blood pressure," David B says.

Despite the clutter in the room, David B. knows where everything is, and takes care of himself as much as he can. He has cerebral palsy and is legally blind.

He uses the abacus near a stack of Braille documents to balance his checkbook. 

"I can do some cooking, but I'm no chef," David B says.

Gilmour has about ten other stops to make in this multi-level affordable housing development in Nashua.

The visits don’t always go as planned, he says.

Sometimes they ask me to put their extra milk in the fridge. You open the fridge — and it’s empty. That tells you something," Gilmore says. "If they’re still in bed when usually they’re up, that tells you something. If they’re writhing in pain from a fall, and this is a specific incident, I called 911. Out they came. If I hadn’t been there, I don’t know how much longer it would have taken for that person’s needs to be met.

Last year, drivers like Gilmour in Hillsborough County made more than 5,000 calls to relatives, police or social workers.

But dips in the budget strip away at these kinds of safety checks.

Two years ago, Meals on Wheels had to drop its Wednesday deliveries.

"When the recession began, it had a big impact on funding," Brady says. "Over the next several years, need increased rapidly but funding was level or reduced."

But with the number of seniors expected to nearly double by 2025, Brady says she doesn’t want to streamline any more.

Last week, the New Hampshire Senate Finance Committee voted to restore funding for Meals on Wheels that the House had cut.

But it will be at least July before the Senate and the House hammer out the final budget details, and a long road before Governor Maggie Hassan signs one into law.