BY STEVE BIGHAM
SOUTHBURY — A budget crunch has forced the area’s Meals on Wheels program to temporarily suspend all Wednesday deliveries to homebound seniors, reducing the number of meals provided from five days a week to four.
And the fear is the situation could get worse before it gets better.
For local resident and volunteer, Jan Stribula, the reduction in meal delivery is a real problem, bordering on an emergency, because, as he says, everyone needs to eat.
“The problem seems to be that with COVID, there are a lot more people requesting meals than before, so Meals on Wheels has been exhausting its budget faster than expected and it needs to be replenished,” he said Thursday. “The bottom line for me is everybody needs to be fed. Period. End of story. It shouldn’t be this way.”
Meals on Wheels is a program that delivers meals to individuals at home who are unable to purchase or prepare their own meals. The name is often used generically to refer to home-delivered meals programs, not all of which are actually named “Meals on Wheels.”
In Greater Waterbury, the program is run by New Opportunities of Waterbury, which provides a variety of social service programs designed to eliminate poverty and assist people in need.
The program serves Beacon Falls, Bethlehem, Cheshire, Middlebury, Naugatuck, Prospect, Southbury, Thomaston, Watertown, Waterbury, Wolcott and Woodbury.
New Opportunities’ director of senior services director, Yadira Perez, said her organization is currently facing a $200,000 budget shortfall, which has given it no choice, but to reduce the number of meals it prepares and delivers.
Perez said the current budget of $1.3 million — made possible through state and federal funding — is all-but gone, forcing her to make the tough decision, which, she said, impacts society’s most vulnerable population, who without Meals on Wheels, would not get the necessary daily diet.
The number of those currently receiving Meals on Wheels in the 12 towns New Opportunities serves, now stands at 438 homebound seniors, far more than what the existing budget was set up for, Perez said.
“It’s not enough to sustain the growing needs of those with food insecurities. So right now, clients are only receiving meals Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. And there is a high possibility of even more reductions, reducing people from four to three days a week,” said Perez, who said inflationary pressures and a drop in private donations have also played a role. Plus, she added, funding is currently based on outdated figures from the 2010 US Census.
New Opportunities, like all Meals on Wheels providers across the country, did receive COVID relief funds in past years, but those funds are no longer available.
Perez said state and federal legislators are aware of the situation and have pledged to support additional funding in future years.
But getting through until then end of the current fiscal year, which runs until Sept. 30, won’t be easy, Perez said.
“It’s going to require an additional $1.3 to $2 million more for next year and the next year after that,” Perez said.
Stribula, a retired engineer who volunteers his time delivering meals, said he has been writing letters to state legislatures in an effort to raise awareness to the problem.
“This seems like it pushes a lot of buttons because I’ve been getting an enthusiastic response,” he said..
Meals on Wheels is funded as part of the federal Title III-C Americans Act through the Western Connecticut Area Agency in Aging.
Perez said those looking to help the cause can make monetary donations for the program, including at an April 25-26 “Give Local” fundraising event put on by the Connecticut Community Foundation. CCF has pledged to match all the donations made during those two days.
Those looking to donate can visit givelocalccf.org.
Perez said research shows that home-delivered meal programs improve diet quality, reduce food insecurity and improve quality-of-life.
“Seniors are one of the greatest populations in need, and if we don’t support them, who will?”Perez said. “The meal itself is not just a meal. For a lot of these seniors, it’s what keeps them healthy and out of the hospital.”