HURRICANE, WV (WOWK) – During the global pandemic senior centers all across West Virginia expanded their nutritional programs with the help of federal dollars. But with the official end of the COVID state of emergency on May 11 that extra money is no longer coming to the state.
Those who feed people day in and day out say they didn’t get much warning that they’d need to adjust their budgets accordingly.
On any given morning at the John Henson Senior Center in Hurricane, West Virginia, you’ll find a crowded kitchen and a team preparing meals that will be delivered to homebound seniors who don’t have anyone else to prepare meals for them. They have a truck that takes up to 80 meals out into the community five days a week.
“It is more than just a meal. It is sometimes that one and only contact that the person has with someone in the public. So, we are checking on people and making sure they have everything they need,” said Jenni Sutherland, Executive Director of Putnam County Aging, the group that operates the center.
They also provide “grab and go” meals and what they call congregate meals where people come to the center to eat.
“To not have a meal service would be a detrimental impact to our senior citizens,” Sutherland said. “Nutrition is key to having a healthy lifestyle. Poor nutrition leads to poor health outcomes.”
During the pandemic, places like the John Henson Senior Center expanded their programs with federal dollars intended to feed as many seniors as possible.
“Each county is given an award based on a funding formula. Those funding formulas did change during COVID. And so, it wasn’t an issue because they had extra money and so we weren’t really operating within our award. But now we will be,” Sutherland explained.
Now centers are having to abruptly adjust to having less funding to do the work they do and to provide the meals that people have come to count on. The federal COVID dollars are gone.
“Effective May 11 the federal government had determined that the public health emergency had come to an end. While that public health emergency was in effect there was federal funding that was coming into our state and that funding was going out to the senior centers to support different nutrition programs that they were offering. So, with the end of the public health emergency those federal dollars have ended. So now we are just going back to operations as normal as it was pre-COVID,” said Denise Worley, the newly named Commissioner for the West Virginia Bureau of Senior Services.
Even though there won’t be as much money to provide the meals, those caring for seniors say there’s still just as many people in need.
“I think the real challenge here is that nationally eight out of ten Meals on Wheels programs are still serving many more seniors than they were before the pandemic on obviously less funding,” said Ellie Hollander, President and CEO of Meals on Wheels America. “One out of four are serving 50% more seniors than they were pre-pandemic. So, the real issue here is that the funding has not kept pace with need nor the growth in the senior population. That is what our concern is, quite frankly, for our country.”
Sutherland said Putnam County Aging took a $22,000 cut in nutrition funds based on the new funding formula. Even though, since the pandemic started, she said they’ve seen an increase in the number and frequency of referrals and an older age group needing help. There are now fewer “60 somethings” and more “80 somethings.”
“The aging population in this state and in our county is growing and families have left,” Sutherland said. “A lot of the loved people needing our services don’t have family living in the state who can help them. So, we’ve seen a big change in the referrals.”
Meals on Wheels America is seeing something similar happen nationally.
“Even flat funding for programs like Meals on Wheels is really a reduction, given the need in America, the growing epidemic of senior hunger and social isolation. As it is we are not able to meet the need that exists today,” Hollander said.
Governor Jim Justice, (R) West Virginia said the state won’t let people go hungry.
“I mean the bottom line of the whole thing is if we are not big enough to make sure that people get fed and we are going to let people go hungry you know then that is bad,” Justice said. “So, we are going to do all we can to staunch up the Meals on Wheels or whatever it may be.”
But Justice and Commissioner Worley both said they’ll be asking senior centers to re-examine their overall budget to see if they can move money from other places to feed people.
“I think it is going to put each county senior center in a position of looking at their individual senior center the programs that they offer and figuring out what the needs are of the seniors in their counties and providing those individualized services,” Worley said.
Justice said not all centers are dealing with the same set of circumstances.
“I mean if you are a senior center that has millions of dollars in surplus just sitting around and you’ve got people going hungry then, well, that’s not any good,” he said. “We need to manage those dollars and manage them in a better way. If you are a senior center that is struggling and everything, we need to try to help them.”
Putnam Aging offers services like social activities, transportation to doctor appointments, grocery shopping assistance, senior commodity boxes and some in home care. And even though the hot meals are just one component of a much broader picture, Sutherland said they do more than just nourish people physically.
“It is more than just a meal. We are checking on people we are making sure they have everything they need. They greet us at the door sometimes with pickle jars they need help getting the lid off of, or they ask her to change a light bulb or take the trash out or get the mail from their mailbox down the driveway,” Sutherland explained. It is a connection she and others at Putnam Aging and the John Henson Senior Center are dedicated to keeping intact.
Last week, Meals on Wheels America along with the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services sent a letter to President Biden regarding ongoing debt limit and federal spending negotiations. That letter urged protection for funding for programs like Meals on Wheels and asked that the current funding levels be preserved at minimum. You can read that letter here.
You can also learn more about the Older Americans Act here.