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Viewpoint: County cuts to 'Meals on Wheels' program would impact many in need

The economic crisis has put everything on the table when it comes to balancing budgets. Area "Meals on Wheels" programs have been negatively impacted and there's not room to make more cuts.

The recent proposal by Washington County Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek to cut county funding for the Meals on Wheels program may enable the county to make next year's budget, however, funding cuts will have long-term ramifications.

Eliminating funding for Meals on Wheels could save the county $152,000 in the short term, but it could jeopardize service to more than 300 elderly and disabled residents in Washington County.

To justify this proposal it was pointed out that other counties do not fund Meals on Wheels programs. While it's true that of the seven Metropolitan counties only Ramsey and Washington directly fund Meals on Wheels, several other counties support Meals on Wheels through other programs.

In Hennepin and Anoka counties, for example, Meals on Wheels programs are partially funded through Community Development Block Grants.

Washington County staff research shows the cost of a home delivered meal is $8.77 and less in other parts of the region. What the county's research doesn't show is that local programs utilize a multitude of in-kind services that reduce the expense per meal and do not appear on an agency's financial statements.

While most Meals on Wheels programs benefit from the generosity of volunteer drivers, many programs operate in corporate, church, or hospital settings rent-free, and several do not pay utilities or employee benefits.

It is in everyone's best interest to use funds as efficiently as possible, but rather than making funding decisions based on inaccurate data, perhaps different questions need to be asked.

What would happen if Washington County cut funds and the number of meals provided to the community had to be reduced?

Medicare-subsidized home services are limited to $15,000 per person ($2,248 for Meals on Wheels in Minnesota), while a year spent in a nursing home costs Medicare more than $50,000.

Instead of finding ways to cut the number of people receiving services, the state and local municipalities would be better served by increasing programs that enable people to remain living in their own homes and avoiding the expense of nursing homes.

There are more than 40 Meals on Wheels programs throughout the Twin Cities, all operating as independent agencies working to meet the demand in their communities.

Meals on Wheels programs leverage limited public resources with volunteer, corporate, and local support to help seniors and people living with disabilities remain living healthy and independent lives in their own homes for as long as possible.

Comparing the operations and costs of one program with those of another does not paint a clear picture of what it takes to deliver this valuable service. Metro Meals on Wheels is working to tabulate the costs and monetary value of in-kind contributions required throughout the region. When this work is complete, perhaps then we will have a better idea about the true cost of home delivered meals.

In the meantime, providers must do what they can to ensure that services are available in their communities because the true value of our neighbors remaining independent and healthy in their own homes in priceless.

For those who aren't familiar with Meals on Wheels, here's some information about the organization: Metro Meals on Wheels is an association of 40 organizations with Meals on Wheels programs in 45 sites located throughout the Twin Cities metro area.

Along with its program partners, Metro leads the effort to ensure that individuals in our community receive nutritious meals and the human connection they need to enable them to live independently. Metro does this through advocacy efforts, volunteer recruitment, resource development, and technical and professional support.

Patrick Rowan is the executive director of Metro Meals on Wheels.