Local Meals on Wheels to roll on … budget cut or no budget cut

This story was written by Haley Smith, originally published in The Sylva Herald.

Volunteer Jean Weaver (L) with client Irene Wike. Photo donated to The Sylva Herald.

It’s still too early to know exactly what might happen, but President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts could limit funding for Jackson County Meals on Wheels.

Jackson County Department on Aging Director Eddie Wells said the details remain in flux.

“If it were a complete cut of the program, that would be one thing, but if it’s just a budget cut, we would continue to run and find a way to make it happen,” he said.

Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2017-18 would eliminate the community development block grant (CDBG) program.

CDBG grants are federal dollars through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. North Carolina receives about $45 million in CDBG funds, according to the state’s website.

These federal funds are allocated by the state to programs that benefit communities and people in need – programs such as Meals on Wheels.

Jackson County Meals on Wheels has an operating budget of about $180,000, depending on the number of program participants.

The state allocates about $90,000 to this budget and the rest is provided locally through the board of commissioners, grants and donations.

Of the $90,000 provided by the state, 36 percent is federally funded and 55 percent is state funded. The federal money comes from the CDBG program.

About 60 percent of the local Meals on Wheels budget is used for food, Wells said.

If the federal defunding of the CDBG program takes place, Jackson County’s Meals on Wheels would lose about $35,000.

It would be up to the state to either make up some of the difference or leave it to individual programs to find new funding.

State Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, said it’s too early to tell if the Meals on Wheels program is something the state would try to protect.

“We’ll have to wait and see what the cuts are,” Davis said. “There’s so much unfinished business – so many unknowns.”

Geraldine Collins, 68, used to lead the county’s Meals on Wheels program. Now, she relies on the program for help.

After becoming wheelchair-bound, Collins said it became increasingly critical she eat well-balanced meals.

“I know the absolute importance and necessity of Meals on Wheels in this county,” Collins said. “No one in Jackson County should go hungry.”

She said the program is about more than just putting a meal on the table.

“The providers and their workers, the volunteers and churches – it’s a domino effect when you start interfering and destroying these safety-net programs,” Collins said.

The local Meals on Wheels program continues to grow.

“We’re looking for new volunteers because there’s such a need in the county,” Wells said. “We’re currently serving 105 seniors on the program, and we fluctuate between 90-110 people annually.”

For some Meals on Wheels recipients who live alone, program volunteers are the only dependable human contact they have.

“It’s extremely important that someone sees a senior citizen every day or a few days a week,” Collins said. “Not only is it uplifting for their heart and a delight to see another human being, but the volunteers can report if there are any problems back to their supervisor.”

A draft of the budget says the CDBG program is not “well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.”

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters at a March 16 press conference that the proposed cuts were “probably one of the most compassionate things we can do.” He said the cuts would prevent taxpayers from pouring money into ineffective programs.

Mulvaney said the Meals on Wheels program “sounds great,” but that “we can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good.”

The budget says the government has given $150 billion to the CDBG program since its creation in 1974. Cutting it would save the federal government an estimated $3 billion.

“I’m worried, but I’m hoping that the budget will not pass because it’s ludicrous,” Collins said. “I think it’s important for people who feel passionately about this, regardless of their party, to write their Congress members.”

Related story: Trump’s budget would abolish 7 local programs