Local Senior Meals Program Struggles to Maintain Services

Seniors and people with disabilities in the Nutfield Publishing coverage area aren’t going hungry – yet. But the possibility is too close for the comfort of Debbie Perou, Rockingham County Nutrition and Meals on Wheels director.
Perou supervises the Meals on Wheels and congregate meals at senior centers and other public places for Derry, Londonderry, Chester, Sandown and Hampstead, as well as other nearby towns.

On Dec. 4, Perou joined U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, for a ride-along to sites in the Salem area. Shaheen, staff and volunteers chatted with seniors about what the program – and Washington budget cuts meant to them.
Shaheen expressed concern about the effects of “sequestration” budget cuts on food service to local seniors, a concern echoed by Perou in a phone interview.
Perou saw a loss of $81,000 in the last fiscal year due to budget cuts, and she’s bracing herself for a possible second round this January. The programs were already level-funded from the state and federal governments, and had been for four years, she said.
She relied on donations from private foundations, including the Alexander Eastman Foundation and United Way, and corporations such as Walmart to make up the difference.
“When it was level-funded, we were already stretching,” she said. “After the cut last year, we had to drop 17,000 meals in Rockingham County.”
The program has three main components, Perou said. Healthy, more active seniors can come to one of the congregate meals at a public site. This is the best option, she said, because it’s good for them to get out and connect with others.
Other seniors, some of whom are frail, receive the hot meal at noon at their homes. The basic delivery program is five days a week, she said, though there’s a customized option where clients who might otherwise not eat can receive extended service.
After the $81,000 disappeared from her budget, Perou made deep cuts. She trimmed back service to younger seniors and scrutinized the needs of those receiving weekend meals. She’s also had to be stricter about holding to income “guidelines.” If the cutoff for a subsidized meal is a monthly income of $1,162 and a potential client makes $1,163, they’re out.
But she’s not happy about it, noting that seniors living alone don’t tend to eat right for a variety of reasons. “Their medication might depress their appetite, they might not be able to get out and shop, they might be depressed,” she said. Any one of these needs could be solved with a ready-made meal delivered by a cheerful volunteer, if the money is available.
Perou has always had to subsidize her allotment with fund-raising, she said. The government gives her about 60 percent of the cost of each meal, even under the previous level-funding, she said.
“We have to fund-raise 40 percent of each meal we serve,” she said.
Other counties have dealt with the cuts in different ways. Hillsborough County dropped Wednesday deliveries to save on fuel and volunteers, and instead offers clients an extra meal on Tuesday. While she doesn’t judge other programs, she’d like to avoid that for Rockingham County, noting that the personal contact cheers “her” seniors and keeps them safe. If a client fell down or took sick on a Wednesday, there wouldn’t necessarily be a visitor to notice it, she pointed out. She tried closing on Wednesdays in the 1980s, she said.
“We try to be there for the people,” she noted.
Last year, Perou’s staff and volunteers were “there” to serve 36,000 meals in Derry. That breaks down to 4,500 congregate meals and the rest delivered to homes. There were 291 clients, she said.
Perou is taking it day by day and meal by meal. The most recent annual giving campaign went well, she said. She’s hoping for help from Shaheen, and to see the lost funding restored.
“I’d like to say to some of the politicians, ‘Let’s see you not eat for a day,’” she said.
The idea of prepackaged meals delivered to shut-ins, in modern times, dates back to the London Blitz, she said. President Lyndon B. Johnson made it part of his “Great Society” in 1965 as part of the Older Americans Act.
Perou breaks down its service in local towns as follows:
• Derry: Total meals, 25,473. Meals in dining halls, 2,262. Meals on Wheels, 23,211. Clients, 217.
• Londonderry: Total meals, 10,216. Meals in dining halls, 2,002. Meals on Wheels, 8,214. Clients, 109.
• Chester: Total meals, 758. Meals on Wheels, 758. Clients, five.
• Hampstead: Total meals, 9,475. Meals in dining halls, 2,188. Meals on Wheels, 7,281. Clients, 108.
• Sandown: Total meals, 2,640. Meals in dining halls, 408. Meals on Wheels, 2,232. Clients, 26.