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Could Meals On Wheels Really Lose Funding? Yes, But It's Hard To Say How Much

Southern Maine Agency on Aging's Meals on Wheels program.
Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
Southern Maine Agency on Aging's Meals on Wheels program.

Call it an outburst of outrage giving.

Since President Trump's budget proposal was unveiled last Thursday, Meals on Wheels America, the national group which says it supports more than 5,000 community-based organizations that deliver meals to homebound seniors, has seen a flood of donations.

"On a given day, Meals on Wheels America typically receives $1,000 in unsolicited online donations. Since Thursday morning, we've received more than $160,000 in online donations," says Jenny Bertolette, vice president for communications for the national group — which speaks on behalf of local programs and advocates for seniors, but does not itself deliver meals. It plans to use the money to fund awareness campaigns, among other things.


That surge in generosity comes in the wake of news stories suggesting that Trump's budget plan asks Congress for cuts that would gut federal funding for the program. But is that really the case?

The White House says no.

"Some of the stories are just either grossly wrong or nearly grossly wrong, all the stories about how we cut Meals on Wheels," Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday.

Actually, how the meal programs are funded is kind of complicated.

The brouhaha stems from two community development block grants that would be eliminated under Trump's budget. States and cities receive the grants to help them fight poverty, and some of them use that money to help pay for Meals on Wheels programs.


Meals on Wheels, you see, isn't a federal program. It's a network of thousands of independently run groups that receive varying amounts of government aid – or none at all. (Some rely entirely on private donations). Together, they deliver hot meals to 2.4 million seniors each year. Some of these programs get federal funding, but how that will be affected is still unclear.

That's because we don't know how many programs get at least some of their funding through the block grants that are on the chopping block in Trump's budget. It's up to localities to allocate those funds, and as far as Bertolette knows, no one keeps a national tally of which cities and states are using those grants to fund Meals on Wheels, or how much is going to the programs.

But by far, the biggest source of federal funding for Meals on Wheels programs comes from another source: the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program, which is run by the Department Of Health and Human Services. In the aggregate, Bertolette says Meals on Wheels programs across the country rely on the HHS program for 35 percent of their funding.

The White House has proposed slashing the Health and Human Services budget by nearly 18 percent, but the details of those cuts have not been released. Will the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program be affected? No way to know.

But Bertolette says "it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which these critical services would not be significantly and negatively impacted if [the budget proposal is] enacted into law," she says.

Even at current federal funding levels, some Meals on Wheels programs are struggling to meet demand.

"We have a waiting list for home-delivered meals of 815 seniors, and it's growing," says Mark Adler, executive director of Meals On Wheels South Florida, which gets 65 percent of its $5.2 million yearly budget through the federal Older Americans Act.

"We're already facing a situation where almost all of the seniors on our waiting list aren't going live to see their first meal delivered," says Adler.

His group serves 1.2 million meals to 10,000 seniors each year. Since Thursday, it's seen a spike in donations, taking in $1,000 over a three-day period, Adler says, where normally "we'd get $100 if we're lucky."

Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland serves Baltimore City and seven other counties in the state. It relies on HHS funds for half of its $9 million annual budget.

Over the last four days, the Maryland group received $6,300 in donations, a huge increase over normal, a spokesperson said. The outpouring was welcome, because federal funds cover only about 30-60 percent of the cost of the roughly 1,500 meals it serves each day, so the organization is constantly fundraising to bridge that gap.

"Loss of [federal] funding would mean that we would have to drastically reduce the number of people we can serve," Stephanie Archer-Smith, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland, said in a statement.

Until the White House releases details of what will happen with funding for the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program, Adler says he'll remain on tenterhooks.

"The sword of Damocles is hanging over our head with what is going to happen with this administration," Adler says.

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