NEW BRITAIN – It’s a bitterly cold, blustery Wednesday but the weather didn’t stop about two dozen “regulars” from showing up at the New Britain Senior Center for their noon meal.
“Yesterday we had hamburgers, the day before we had pork loin, said 68-year-old Rick Lebel who comes for meals five days a week. “Try and find these prices at a restaurant at $2.50 a meal. I pay the entire bill once a month. It’s an economical meal.”
For many the congregate meals offered at the senior center through funding provided by the North Central Area Agency on Aging are a Godsend, said New Britain Senior Center Director Mike Karwin. “It’s not only the nutritional component, although it is a hot meal that for some folks is the only hot meal of the day, it’s also the socialization,” Karwin said. “They come in the morning on the Dial-A-Ride bus, attend activities, stay for lunch and more activities and then take the bus home.”
But the program run by NCAAA through a contract with CW Resources who prepares and delivers the food to homebound seniors and senior centers in New Britain, Plainville, Bristol, Berlin and Terryville, may be on the chopping block or facing deep cuts as the federal Department of Health and Human Services took a 16.9 percent hit as part of President Donald Trump’s “skinny” budget proposal given to Congress last week.
Unlike many other states, the meal home delivery program, commonly called “meals on wheels,” and the congregate meal programs held at senior centers in Connecticut are not funded with Community Development Block Grants, which are slated for elimination in Trump’s proposed budget. But the program does rely heavily on federal funding from DHHS through the Older Americans Act, said NCAAA Executive Director Maureen McIntyre who admitted it was uncomfortable to feel as if they were “relying on the stroke of a pen” for funding.
“I think we all have a sense it’s going to be bad,” she said.
Her agency and five others in the state provide both home delivered meals to seniors who can’t adequately shop or cook for themselves and meals to senior centers. Roughly $542,000 of her $2.7 million 2016 nutrition services budget goes to delivering 81,452 meals to homebound seniors and 44,156 congregate meals at senior centers in New Britain, Berlin, Bristol, Plainville and Terryville for 997 unique individuals. The homebound seniors can receive two meals a day from the driver, a hot meal for lunch and a cold meal for later. The NCAAA serves seniors in 38 towns in Central and North Connecticut from East Granby to Berlin and Terryville to Marlborough.
Of the $542,000, $280,973 in funding comes from the DHHS through the Older Americans Act, $90,080 comes from the federal Nutrition Services Incentive Program, which is also through DHHS, $157,228 comes from state nutrition funds and $13,418 comes from a federal Social Service Block Grant distributed by the state Department of Social Services. For the time being, state officials told executives at all six AAAs Wednesday that any SSBG funding is not expected to be cut. But state nutritional funds could be axed as part of the state budget deliberations.
Seniors who use the home delivery and congregate meal program are asked to make a donation of $2.50 per meal. The donation is not mandatory and seniors will still be fed if they can’t meet the cost. In 2016, seniors using the programs in New Britain, Berlin, Bristol, Plainville and Terryville, donated $173,883. Including the $173,883, NCAAA spent about $716,000 on meals for the area in 2016.
The donations work out to about $1 per meal, said Steve Sutcliff, director of food services for CW Resources which holds the contract to provide meals for the towns.
“The senior cafes are great for socialization,” Sutcliff said. “Generally the homebound seniors really need the delivery service. Some count on it 100 percent of the time and they don’t have too much food in the house.”
The home delivery meals also provide socialization and a daily set of watchful eyes, McIntrye said. “The drivers are directly fighting isolation. They may be the only person that senior sees all day. The drivers also check on people to make sure they are okay and they can tell if something is amiss,” she said. “This is a life sustaining program. The data exists that it is key to keeping people in their homes longer and it will never be as expensive as placing them in residential care.”
As a lunch of bruschetta chicken, spinach and roasted potatoes is about to be served Wednesday afternoon, 96-year-old Joe Smyk isn’t bashful about asking a stranger if she’ll around when the live band starts performing at the New Britain Senior Center in an hour. Smyk needs a little help cutting his meat. But other than that, he’s on the dance floor for every tune and he exercises regularly at the senior center, Karwin said.
The lunch served with pumpernickel bread, pears and apple juice, will be his hot meal for the day, Smyk said.
Across the room, Loretta Knight is sitting at a table with three other women. She comes three days a week to be with other people. “I feel it’s important and shouldn’t be cut,” she said. “If it weren’t for this, I’d be doing nothing.”
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@newbritainherald.com.