Senior meals program to be slashed

March 2, 2012
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A program that provides meals to hundreds of needy and isolated seniors in the Jamaica Plain area is slated for a 25 percent state budget cut.

Ethos, a JP-based organization that provides many of those meals, says the cut is a double whammy. That’s because the state just ran out of money to provide comprehensive home care for seniors, forcing them onto a wait list as of March 1. And home-delivered meals is often a basic tide-over for such services.

“Something’s got to give” if the cut goes through, said Ethos Executive Director Dale Mitchell. “Whatever reduction we experience will have to be passed on in the form of reduced service.”

Local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez said he has received a high volume of complaints from seniors about the proposed “Elder Nutrition Program” cut. He said he is interested in some form of tax increase, but that House leadership says it is not “possible to consider” politically in an election year.

“It’s brutal,” Sánchez said of the political environment. “I’ll keep banging away on this one.”

The cut, proposed in Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget, targets a state program that supplements federal funding for so-called Meals on Wheels programs, which in fact may be home-delivered or provided on-site. The funding would drop from $6 million a year to $4.5 million.

Mitchell said that advocacy groups estimate that will translate to 250,000 fewer meals a year served statewide. For Ethos, which serves JP and other Southwest Boston neighborhoods, it would mean about 20,000 fewer meals.

Ethos has two types of meal programs. One delivers meals to homebound seniors. The other, “community cafés,” hosts meal sites around the city. There are several at JP-area senior housing buildings, including Amory Street, Back of the Hill Apartments, Farnsworth House, Julia Martin House, Nate Smith House and Woodbourne Apartments. And, Mitchell said, Ethos just contracted with First Baptist Church to jointly operate a meal site there.

“There are probably more meal sites in Jamaica Plain than any other neighborhood that we serve,” he said. And those sites would likely take the brunt of any cuts, because the seniors who attend are lower-risk, at least in terms of being mobile.

Meal sites are important because they combat isolation, which has “always been identified as a risk factor” for a host of physical and mental health issues, he said.

Ethos’s mission is to keep seniors at home rather than entering nursing homes, which Mitchell describes as “expensive and taxpayer-funded.” (Ethos’s programs are largely state-funded.) A few years ago, the last time there was a wait list for home care services, it was about 120 people long for Ethos and had thousands affected statewide.

“No one seeks home care for no need. It comes from a very stark realization of where they are in life,” Mitchell said. “And [now] they’re being told, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’”

He said he fears the wait list, along with the possible loss of home-delivered meals, could push more people into nursing homes. He called the Elder Nutrition Program cut “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

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