Cuts to senior food programs loom in Oklahoma
Norman resident Caroline Tiner, 70, eats half her noodle casserole and pea salad lunch before she produces a plastic container from under the table to save the rest.
"Dinner," she whispers, as she scoops up the food.
Tiner and other Norman seniors eat lunch five times a week in the dining room at the Rose Rock Villa senior housing complex in Norman. The meal begins with a prayer and there are bright, colorful centerpieces made with silk flowers adorning each table.
Tiner likes it when cornbread is on the menu, because the leftovers make a particularly good evening meal.
Without the program, Tiner said, she simply wouldn't be able to eat sometimes.
"I'd be hungry," she said. "I get food stamps, but it's just not enough to get by."
State funding for food programs that feed seniors has already seen deep cuts over the past several years and the looming possibility of federal cuts to food programs could create a double-bind for hungry seniors. The funding cuts could put new strains on privately funded food banks and other nonprofits to feed hungry seniors.
The lunch program at Rose Rock Villa is part of a federal program created by Congress in the 1960s as part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society reforms. Today, the lunches are funded mostly through a mix of state and federal funding, although state funding has decreased considerably over the past several years, said Kathleen Wilson, executive director of Aging Services Inc.
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The seniors also make small donations when they can to keep the program going and volunteer to help prepare and serve the meals.
"We've cut and cut to the bone and I don't know how we can continue to do it with less funding," Wilson said.
Many of the 500 to 600 people Aging Services Inc. feeds in Cleveland County each day are seniors who are disabled or living on a fixed income. There's also more seniors to feed than ever before, as more Baby Boomers reach retirement age, Wilson said.
"This program provides at least one good, solid meal five days a week."
Deep state cuts
Earlier this year the Oklahoma Department of Human Services was forced to announce about $30 million in cuts from services, including senior nutrition programs. As part of its initial estimates, DHS said the cuts would mean about 30 senior meal sites would have to close in the state. About $4.2 million in funding to DHS was later restored, but funding is up in the air again as the Legislature prepares for a special session to untangle budget issues.
"Depending on what happens in the upcoming special session, there is a possibility of more cuts," said Debra Martin, a spokeswoman for DHS.
During the special session, the Legislature will have to decide how to deal with a $215 million loss in state revenue this budget year after the Oklahoma Supreme Court found a new fee on cigarettes to be unconstitutional. DHS was to receive $69 million of funding from the cigarette fee, which was factored into the current budget.
House and Senate leadership have asked DHS to provide budget estimates for a 3.17 percent budget reduction. The cuts could force DHS to eliminate state matching funds for senior meal programs that serve more than 45,000 seniors in the state, according to one estimate.
Funding for Mobile Meals of Oklahoma County, has seen several successive state funding cuts over the past few years, said Allen Johnson, project director.
About 200 seniors are currently on the waiting list for the Mobile Meals program in Oklahoma County. This summer, Johnson made the difficult decision to cut recipients back from five meals a week to three. That way, he can feed more hungry seniors, he said.
The program primarily feeds seniors who just got out of the hospital, recently lost a spouse or can't drive a car to get to a grocery store, he said.
"Three days a week is not much, but it's better than nothing," Johnson said. "It's the time right now where the families have to really step up and help their parents and grandparents."
Areawide Aging Agency Inc, the nonprofit that coordinates and monitors senior feeding programs for much of central Oklahoma, has had its state funding cut by 19 percent over the past decade.
In the most recent budget year, Areawide Aging had its funding reduced by $120,000, said Don Hudman, executive director. The agency's grantees have already reduced staffing levels by about 40 percent, Hudman said.
"The only place we can cut is the meal programs," Hudman said. "It's a dire situation — it's more than dire."
The agency is preparing to close and consolidate some meal sites because of the funding cuts.
Hudman said he hopes the Legislature will do something to better fund social service programs for seniors in the state, but he's not optimistic.
"If I'm betting, I'm not betting that the Legislature will come through for the seniors of Oklahoma," he said.
Federal cutbacks proposed
The looming possibility of federal budget cuts to senior food programs could compound state funding cuts.
The Trump administration has proposed cutting $193 billion from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the next decade, a 25 percent funding reduction. An estimated 600,000 Oklahomans receive food benefits through the SNAP program each month, according to Benefits.gov.
Although SNAP is a federal program, state funding pays for staff to administer it in Oklahoma. DHS has been forced to reduce several hundred employees in county offices statewide who take applications and process SNAP benefits.
The Trump budget proposal also includes cuts to Community Development Block Grants, which help fund Meals on Wheels and Mobile Meals programs.
Nonprofit food programs that don't receive large chunks of their funding from state and federal programs fear they will have to pick up the slack to feed hungry seniors.
Lynn Haynes, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Norman, said she fears closing senior meal sites will create new demands for food that nonprofit feeding programs will have problem filling.
Unlike many similar programs, Norman Meals on Wheels gets most of its funding from private donations.
"It's a mess and people will turn to organizers like us and food pantries," Haynes said. "It will be more of a draw on the nonprofit sector, which I'm afraid will create a waiting list."
Katie Fitzgerald, CEO of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, said proposed cuts to the SNAP program and senior food programs would strain its food pantry program and food program for seniors.
"It would put pressure on the food banking system at a level we frankly have not ever seen before," she said.