LEWISTON, MINN. – At 97, you make some concessions. Mary Hennessy gave up line dancing a few years ago.
But she’s not ready to give up the home she shares with her husband, Bernie, in this Winona County city of 1,600 people where she’s lived her whole life.
That’s why the couple is grateful for Meals on Wheels, whose volunteers deliver two meals to their door five days a week. Mary Hennessy doesn’t go into the kitchen any more, and as for Bernie: “I’m a lousy cook,” he said.
The Hennessys are among the more than 50,000 Minnesota senior citizens who benefit from Meals on Wheels, which served nearly 2.5 million meals across the state last year. About one-third are delivered to homes; the others are served at local community centers, schools or restaurants. Thousands more seniors receive meals and emergency food aid through community action programs serving cities and tribal reservations.
But those programs may be in jeopardy. Citing a responsibility to taxpayers to run government more efficiently, the Trump administration recently proposed a federal budget that calls for drastically reducing — or completely eliminating — programs that pay for Meals on Wheels and other nutrition services.
“We’re not going to spend on programs that cannot show they actually deliver the promises we’ve made to people,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the federal Office of Management and Budget, said at a recent news conference.
Although details of the proposed cuts aren’t known, the budget on the table calls for eliminating the Community Development Block Grant and Community Services Block Grant programs, which provide a share of the funding for senior nutrition programs nationwide.
More concerning to nutrition providers is the Trump administration’s call to cut the overall budget of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by 18 percent. That could deliver an even more devastating blow to Meals on Wheels programs in Minnesota, which rely on HHS funds for about half their money.
Program proponents call the proposal shortsighted.
“If you think cutting this program is going to save money, you’re wrong. It’s going to cost money,” said Gail Schwanbeck, who manages a nutrition program for the Southeast Minnesota Community Action Agency (SEMCAC), which covers 11 counties.
Nobody over age 60 is turned away. Those who can, pay $4 for their meal. For some, it could be the difference between living at home or needing expensive nursing home care, Schwanbeck and others said.
“Do the math,” said Rick Hest, president of the Eagle Bend Senior Center, which delivers more than 50,000 meals a year in Todd and Wadena counties. “It’s a no-brainer.”
‘Wrongheaded and cruel’
Mary and Bernie Hennessy’s meal — pork medley, green beans and strawberry shortcake — was made from scratch at SEMCAC’s kitchen in Winona, where Donna Ciangiola and Debbie Calhoun prepare more than 120 senior meals every day. It’s one of eight kitchens the group operates.
“Most days, we’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off,” said Ciangiola, who is a paid employee. But with food service workers in high demand — there are more than 500 food service jobs open in Rochester alone, Schwanbeck said — it’s increasingly difficult to find kitchen help.
Volunteers, too, are hard to find. People aren’t retiring as early as they used to, Schwanbeck said, and for many nutrition programs, it’s become a case of the “young seniors” taking care of the older ones.
Another threat to nutrition programs is the Trump administration’s proposal to turn Medicare and Medicaid into block grant programs run by the states. That could change the funding formula for Meals on Wheels and potentially leave the programs with less money, said Pat Rowan, executive director of Metro Meals on Wheels. Based in Minneapolis, the organization works with 32 providers that deliver about half the Meals on Wheels in the state.
About half the people who receive the meals in the Twin Cities area are on Medicaid, Rowan said.
“It would have quite an impact,” he said of the proposed cuts.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., called the threat to nutrition programs “wrongheaded and cruel.
“These important investments often allow seniors and disabled adults to remain in their homes and still get proper nutrition. That’s a good thing and it saves a lot of money for taxpayers,” he said. “It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish for the president or Congress to push deep cuts in these important programs.”
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who represents the Winona area, said the senior nutrition programs “make sense morally and economically.”
“Ensuring that Minnesotans can experience a high quality of life in their golden years is one of our fundamental values,” Walz said. “Programs like Meals on Wheels are a return on our investment.”
‘You can’t beat it’
In St. Charles, 88-year-old Lyle Johnson shows up at the senior center most days for the noontime meal. A retired farmer, Johnson has been alone since his wife, Dorothy, died four years ago. For years, the couple volunteered as drivers, helping other seniors get to the grocery store or the doctor’s office.
“You can’t beat it,” Johnson said of the meal service. He likes the baked chicken, the chili and the spaghetti with meatballs. “I don’t think they should cut it. There’s a lot of people who need this.”
The meals are also an important social connection for seniors who live alone, said Kari Benson, executive director of the Minnesota Board on Aging. For many seniors, the meal delivery may provide their only human contact during the day.
“And as they need it, we can hook them up with other services,” Benson said. “It’s really the entry point into the system.”
Norma Stephens has been serving meals in St. Charles for 29 years. Her mother is 96 and gets Meals on Wheels at her home in the Iron Range city of Aurora. Without those meals, her mother couldn’t remain at home, Stephens said.
It’s the same story for seniors across Winona County, where many small towns no longer have a grocery store, Schwanbeck said. And many seniors no longer can drive.
“How are we going to keep these people well fed?” Schwanbeck said. “I just think they haven’t thought about this. The long-term savings are huge. Trump is a business person. I don’t know why he can’t figure that out.
“To take this away — we will pay for it if they do,” she said. “We will.”