Sequestration Cuts Will Stall Meals On Wheels

President Barack Obama gestures during a speech about automatic defense budget cuts, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, at Newport News
President Barack Obama gestures during a speech about automatic defense budget cuts, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Helen Becker of Northampton, Pa. has received a hot meal from volunteers with Meals On Wheels of Northampton County every day for the past several years.

"That's the biggest part of my diet, having the cooked meal," Becker, 89, said in an interview. On Mondays it might be rotisserie baked chicken with yams, Tuesdays maybe spaghetti with meatballs accompanied by half a cup of applesauce and a dinner roll. And so on, every weekday at lunchtime.

The whole routine is now in doubt, thanks to budget cuts known as "sequestration" that are scheduled to kick in on Friday. The policy will deliver a 5.1 percent cut to a broad range of federal programs, including those under the Administration on Aging, which since 1972 has provided federal funds for senior nutrition programs.

"If they try and cut it I don't know what's going to happen to all these people that get it, especially somebody like me and all the others," Becker said.

Exactly how many fewer meals seniors will receive and whether Becker will be affected remain unclear. The Obama administration says 4 million meals will be lost. The Meals On Wheels Association of America, an umbrella group for some 5,000 local organizations nationwide distributing a million meals a day, estimates the cuts will have an even bigger effect: 19 million fewer meals.

The White House has not provided a detailed explanation of how it came up with its count of lost meals, but allowed there could be funding streams omitted from its estimate. The Meals On Wheels number is based not just on funding for home-delivered meals, but also funds for "congregant" meals served in group settings and funds for nutrition-service incentive programs. The association estimates the three funding sources add up to more than $800 million; sequestration's 5.1 percent cut will subtract roughly $41 million, which Meals On Wheels says amounts to 19 million meals.

The differing estimates reflect the overall uncertainty over the impact of sequestration. While the White House and nonpartisan economists maintain the cuts will significantly harm individual Americans and also the broader U.S. economy, some Republicans have said the potential damage has been exaggerated.

"It is a terrible way to cut spending, but not to cut 2.5 percent over the total budget over a year when it is twice the size it was 10 years ago? Give me a break," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said on Sunday. "We see all these claims about what a tragedy it's going to be."

Yet there's not much disagreement that there will be less money for elderly nutrition. Advocates say even one missed meal can have consequences.

"Given that most Meals On Wheels recipients only get one meal a day, five days a week, that loss of nutrition and personal interaction would be catastrophic," Ellie Hollander, president of the Meals On Wheels Association of America, said in a statement. "We know that seniors who receive nutritious meals are healthier and more independent than those who don’t."

Hollander noted a recent Brown University study that found investments in food can keep seniors healthier and out of nursing homes, and thereby save the government money.

Even before the cuts have begun, Hollander said they're already having an effect. "In anticipation of the looming sequestration, wait lists are growing, seniors are being turned away, and some programs face the risk of shutting down entirely," she said.

JoAnn Nenow, director of the local Meals On Wheels nonprofit in Northampton, Pa., anticipates sequestration costing the state $1.9 million in funding and serving roughly a million fewer meals. More than 10,000 seniors will be affected. (Nenow connected HuffPost with Becker.)

"I just don't know how much more we can take and be expected to care for seniors in Pennsylvania," Nenow said.

John Becker, Helen Becker's son, said he's worried about how less money for senior nutrition could affect his mother.

"It's not only the food, it's the daily contact with the people who bring the meals," said Becker, who is 59 and teaches high school in Northampton. The volunteers knocking on his mom's door give Becker peace of mind; if for some reason she doesn't answer right away, the volunteers will call him.

As is often the case, if gaps appear in the government's safety net, friends and family will try to fill them. If sequestration means fewer daily visit and less food, Becker said he'll do more himself. "My mother still has us to help out," he said. "We keep an eye on her."



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