In The News: Public funding to fight hunger among aging Americans not keeping pace with growth

Tulsa World Article

Tulsa World: Ginnie Graham Editorial Writeri

On a torn-out spiral sheet of paper, a woman included 30 cents with an explanation it was to defray costs for a service that gave her companionship and nourishment.

Even though Meals on Wheels doesn’t require a fee, that note is kept by President and CEO Calvin Moore.

That humble offering is a consistent reminder of the nonprofit’s mission. It shows that low-income people want to help themselves when able, motivating Moore.

“Our clients’ needs are much greater than what we are serving today. That has been reflected in budget constraints,” Moore said.

Meals on Wheels Metro Tulsa provides meals to 1,000 home-bound clients with limited ability to prepare meals and 500 teenagers without consistent access to a kitchen for cooking. That is an average of about 300,000 meals a year.

It is not enough.

In Oklahoma, 17% of seniors are threatened by hunger, and 23% of children don’t get enough to eat. An aging population and emphasis on home-based care mean demand on nonprofits like Meals on Wheels will increase.

The nonprofit, which turns 50 next year, has been operating out of its facility at 12620 E. 31st St. for about 38 years, and space is at a premium shown by the use of every nook, cranny and wall space.

A capital campaign is in its silent phase (meaning not launched community-wide yet) to find larger accommodations.

“We need three times this space,” Moore said. “Our goal is to serve 1 million meals a year to between 2,000 and 3,000 home-bound clients and more than 1,000 youth.”

Nonprofits working to alleviate hunger cannot do their work without public partners.

Charity alone cannot meet all social needs. Private philanthropy cannot supplant public revenue sources.

In 1965, Congress passed the Older Americans Act because of a severe shortage of community social services for older people. The Title III portion of the law provides funding to help state and local agencies develop and deliver in-home and long-term services.

About 70% ($1.5 billion) of the act’s total budget goes to support Title III programs.

Nationally, about 11.3 million older Americans are served in these programs, including 145.2 million home-delivered meals and 79.2 million meals served in centers.

Meals on Wheels taps into this public support and advocates for public funding benefiting other hunger-relief programs, such as free and reduced-cost school lunches and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Most of Tulsa’s Meals on Wheels is privately funded. Clients are asked to pay what they can, and 42% make contributions, though it accounts for less than 5% of the total income.

“Currently our program is funded by private philanthropy, but our goal is to diversify all funding sources to include Title III,” Moore said.

An AARP Public Policy Institute report noted that funding for the Older Americans Act (OAA) has increased only 1.1% annually since 2001. It has moved from $1.68 billion in 2001 to $2.06 billion in the current fiscal year.

Total OAA expenditures to Oklahoma last year were about $7.96 million, which made up 45% of all funding spent on home-delivered meals and those served in group settings.

While the overall funding of the act is 22% above its 2001 level, the number of people aged 60 and older has jumped 63% in that time. That isn’t slowing down; about 10,000 baby boomers retire every day.

This was first noted in a 2015 Government Accountability Office report. It found only 9% of low-income older people received meals through the Older Americans Act Title III programs. It also found about two-thirds older adults with difficulties with daily activities received limited or no home-based care.

Evaluations of the Title III programs found 61% of home-bound clients would skip meals or eat less if a home-delivery program were not available.

Policy changes may be needed, such as more flexibility to fund meals delivered directly to homes or in group settings, depending on local needs “As Congress considers reauthorization of the OAA, if current trends continue, the number of adults who need services like those provided by OAA Title III grants may continue to increase with the retirement of the baby boom generation,” the report states.

Moore serves as vice chairman on the national board for Meals on Wheels America and uses some of his time to lobby Congress for needed changes, including robust funding increases in Title III programs.

“The budget increases are not keeping up with growth in demand,” he said. “But I am thankful for strong bipartisan support for a 10% increase in appropriations and the renewal of Title III this year. The Oklahoma delegation has been very supportive.”

Still, this is just not about nutrition, it’s about bolstering the safety net.

Last year, a Meals on Wheels volunteer found Tulsa resident Darrell Caudill unconscious and called 911, saving his life.

“I died that day,” Caudill said. “My kidneys decided not to function anymore.”

Caudill continues his recovery at home, receiving Meals on Wheels food and company three times a week.

That is probably not enough visits. It is the reason why Meals on Wheels Metro Tulsa has goals to up service routes, clients and volunteers.

Each meal represents one-third of a person’s daily nutrition. Moore would like clients to get at least eight meals and two breakfasts a week from the nonprofit with delivery five days a week.

“We want our volunteers to see clients every single day to check on any change of their condition, determine if a first responder is needed or if they need other services,” Moore said.

The volunteer corps tends to be older with two-thirds aged 55 and older.

“I embrace it,” Moore said. “With older Americans, there is a tendency to become isolated, lonely and depressed in older ages. Volunteering puts them into the community. I view it positively.”

Other Meals on Wheels volunteer programs encourage businesses to adopt routes for employees to volunteer and for children to go with adults, sometimes giving clients original artwork.

St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church has incorporated a weekly route for its youth summer camp, operated by its nonprofit Spot 31.

“We try and promote community,” said Debbie Gant, executive director of Spot 31. “We want them to understand there are people who cannot leave their home and don’t have meals. We want them as children to be aware not just of volunteerism but of being part of a greater community.”

As 5-year-old Kimberly Rose Nelson and 8-year-old Ericah Roberts placed meals in the refrigerator of Caudill’s home, he spoke about his life to those visiting. He moved to Tulsa about five years ago from Ponca City after severe health problems required him to be closer to hospitals and a family member.

He lives alone, unable to drive and with limited mobility due to several surgeries including a partial leg amputation requiring him to use a wheelchair.

He loves talking about his family, pointing out the photos covering his living room. He enjoyed the brief visit with children.

“I love to see them because they remind me of my own kids,” he said. “All I do is sit all day and watch TV, and sometimes I might go outside a while now that I have an electric wheelchair.”

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