Low-cost catering service launched to offset losses in free Meals on Wheels

Posted Oct. 26, 2011, at 4:20 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A popular free meals program for low-income senior citizens is struggling in central Maine, but a new paid catering service could help keep dinner on the table for those who need it most.

For the past 45 years, the federally funded Meals on Wheels program has provided free, nutritionally sound meals to seniors in Maine. The program, which for a time was known as Meals for ME, not only delivers flash-frozen dinners to elderly in their homes but also serves community meals in church basements, grange halls and other public sites across the state. Federal regulations require that the meals be available at no charge, although donations are encouraged.

But in the four-county region served by the Eastern Area Agency on Aging, Meals on Wheels is in trouble, a victim of its own success, perhaps. As Maine’s rural population ages, the program, flat-funded for the past ten years, is drawing an ever-increasing number of seniors. At the same time, the cost of preparing the meals is going up along with the price of renting space for community meals and fuel for delivering home meals. And the donations are not exactly rolling in.

Last year, according to Robert Crone, director of nutrition services at Eastern Area Agency on Aging, the program served up 72,619 community meals and 86,384 home-delivered meals to a total of 3,440 clients in Penobscot, Piscatiquis, Washington and Hancock counties. That’s a 27.5 percent increase in clients over the year before, Crone said, and he did it with a budget of about $1.28 million.

“That’s about $206,000 less than it cost me to run the program this year,” he said.

The problem, explained Carol Higgins Taylor, communications director at the Eastern Area Agency on Aging, is that Meals on Wheels traditionally has taken a permissive view on who is eligible for the free meals. Federal guidelines say the meals must be available at no cost to seniors who are ill, low-income, home-bound or unable to prepare their own meals. These are vague standards, Taylor said, and regulations prohibit requiring seniors to prove their low-income status.

The result, she said, is an ever-growing number of older folks who appreciate the convenience of the home-delivered meals or the sociability of the community meals. Many could afford to pay a small amount, she said, but too many choose not to.

“At one site, we served 17 meals one day and the donation for that day was nine dollars,” said Taylor. “We simply can’t sustain that.”

So Eastern Area Agency on Aging is tightening up the rules, requiring those receiving the free meals, either at home or at the community sites, to be referred to the program by a doctor or social worker. The agency also has closed several of its community meal sites over the past year, leaving in place those that are in the poorest and most rural parts of the region.

“We’re just losing so much money,” Taylor said. “We needed to focus on being a safety net for those who need the program the most.”

For the others, Eastern Area Agency on Aging has rolled out a new meal service, 3-D Catering. The Ds stand for Delivering Delicious Dinners. The meals cost just $4 apiece and are delivered to the door by a smiling volunteer. Anyone 50 or older can be a 3-D customer.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Bangor residents Edgar and Barbara Brown unpacked two sacks of frozen dinners that had just been delivered to their door. Chicken with gravy, baked stuffed whitefish and beef tips with sweet potatoes were among the entrees in the delivery. Two quarts of low-fat milk were included as well, along with some cookies and small whoopie pies. It’s the same food they could have gotten free through Meals on Wheels, but since they don’t have a doctor’s referral, the ten meals cost them $40.

Barbara Brown said the couple doesn’t mind paying the modest charge.

“At $4 apiece, these are wonderful meals,” she said. “And with these being delivered here, I only have to get to the grocery store once a week.”

Taylor hopes 3-D Catering will help preserve traditional Meals on Wheels for those who cannot afford to pay at all.

“The money they pay will go right back into the program and help provide for those who really cannot pay,” she said.

Eastern Area Agency on Aging serves Penobscot, Piscataquis, Hancock and Washington Counties. Community meal sites in Bangor, Greenville, Newport, Bucksport and other places have been closed in recent months. Taylor said the goal is to keep smaller sites in the most rural areas open. In some communities, she noted churches and other groups have stepped forward to help support the program, ensuring that all seniors who need a square meal can get one.

For more information about 3-D Catering or the Meals on Wheels program, call the Eastern Area Agency on Aging at 800-432-7812.

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