“We have received calls every single day, from many of our clients, asking will their meals be cut, will they have food tomorrow,” Peg Marshall, director of Meals on Wheels in Salem County, New Jersey, said in an interview.
Thousands of Meals on Wheels offices around the country help deliver 1 million meals a day to homebound senior citizens. These organizations get about 35 percent of their funding from the federal government, with most of the rest coming from donations.
“We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said this month in response to a question about Meals on Wheels ― even though the budget didn’t propose direct funding cuts for the program.
Marshall said she tells her clients that Trump’s budget is just a proposal, not something that’s about to become law. Even Republicans have said they can’t support the budget’s cuts to domestic spending.
“At this point in time, you’re okay, but we don’t know what the future holds,” Marshall said.
Jenny Bertolette, a spokeswoman for Meals on Wheels America, an umbrella organization for 5,000 local meal-delivery affiliates, said that after the budget came out, her inbox flooded with emails ― both from reporters and also people worried about their next lunch.
“As the inquiries from news outlets across the country were pouring in during the first 72 hours after the budget dropped, I was simultaneously getting messages from frightened seniors who saw the news, found my email address on the national website and were pleading for me to do everything I could to protect their only lifeline,” Bertolette said in an email.
Fortunately, there’s been an upside to the funding flap. The stories about Trump’s budget, some of them incorrectly saying Meals on Wheels would be wiped out, didn’t just panic seniors ― they also generated donations and volunteers. Bertolette said Meals on Wheels America typically gets $1,000 a day in unsolicited online donations. In the 72 hours after the budget came out, the organization got nearly 50 times as much. And in less than two weeks, 7,000 people signed up to volunteer through the group’s website, AmericaLetsDoLunch.org
Marshall said Meals on Wheels of Salem County delivers hot food to 150 people per day. One of them is Bruce Budd, a disabled former accountant who deals with tremors from Parkinson’s disease. He used to weigh 400 pounds, he said, but Meals on Wheels has tremendously improved his diet, helping him lose weight and control his diabetes.
“Now, because of Meals on Wheels, I’m having broccoli, and stuffed shells, milk, juice, a banana, and a slice of bread,” Budd, 58, said in an interview at his apartment in Pittsgrove Township, New Jersey. (Meals on Wheels programs typically serve people 60 and older, but many also help the disabled.)
Budd uses a walker and has some difficulty moving around his place, not to mention going to the store. He eagerly awaits his daily meal delivery, particularly because of the social interaction with the volunteers who bring the food.
“I look forward to it, I’m passionate about it, and them is fighting words, if they’re talking about taking it away from me,” Budd said.
Though he was initially alarmed by stories about the Trump administration targeting Meals on Wheels, Budd said he followed the news closely and learned that the budget didn’t directly target his lunch. (Trump’s budget did propose killing several other antipoverty programs, including one that provides a small amount of funds for senior nutrition services in some states, which is why reporters asked the Trump administration about cutting Meals on Wheels.)
In a statement to The Huffington Post last week, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget praised Meals on Wheels but stopped short of saying the Trump administration would shield the program’s funding.
“I look forward to it, I’m passionate about it, and them is fighting words, if they’re talking about taking it away from me.”
A strange thing about the budget director’s characterization of Meals on Wheels as wasteful spending is that several studies have suggested home-delivered meals help senior citizens remain in their own homes. Independent living can save the government money because nursing homes cost Medicaid a fortune. Not that simply providing food for the elderly isn’t itself a noble goal.
“We don’t want to see our clients going into an institution simply because they cannot prepare their food or can’t shop for themselves to get the food into the house,” Marshall said.
Marshall, who voted for Trump, said she didn’t think the administration had thought through its position on Meals on Wheels.
“I know I’m only as good as the information and the facts that I receive and the people that I’m surrounded with,” she said. “I’m not sure that he got the right facts, or the people that are in leadership that are making those decisions have all the facts about the value of our program.”
Meals on Wheels programs and their clients may be sympathetic, but that doesn’t make them invulnerable to budget cuts. In 2013, budget cuts reduced federal funding for senior nutrition programs, though Congress later moved to replace the money. The Trump administration is still pushing steep domestic spending cuts even after members of Congress panned its budget.
Harry Emig volunteers as a driver for Meals on Wheels of Salem County because he benefited from Meals on Wheels himself when he had cancer a few years ago. After getting healthier, he said, he wanted to give back. He brought food to Budd one day last week.
“They get a pretty tough life, you know, so it’s our job to go in, and if they want to talk, we do that, you know, comfort ‘em, deliver their meals,” Emig said. “Who knows, I might be in the same boat down the road.”
The video was produced by Omar Kasrawi and Samara Mackereth, edited by Ethan Kirby and shot by Shane Handler and Artem Golub.