State funding problems causing senior meal programs to cut back
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org January 20, 2013 11:28PM
New Lenox resident John Zekich sips coffee after being served lunch at the Frankfort Township hall Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, at 11000 W. Lincoln Highway in Frankfort. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Want to help?
Fundraiser for Senior Services Center of Will County
What: Mardi Gras Party
When: 4 to 7 p.m. Feb. 12
Where: Harrah’s Casino, Joliet
Cost: $25, includes a band, hors d’oeuvres and silent auction.
Tickets: At the center, 251 N. Center St., Joliet, or by calling (815) 723-9713
Updated: February 22, 2013 6:18AM
Lack of state funding has taken a bite out of the senior meals program in Will County.
Beginning Jan. 30, hot lunches — now served Monday through Friday — will no longer be served or delivered on Wednesdays.
The Senior Services Center of Will County, which provides the meals, has not received any grant funding from the state since September, executive director Patricia Hensley said. Her agency, which provides many services to area seniors, is owed $437,000.
“We are talking about a basic human need. Seniors are the most vulnerable population,” she said.
It’s not the first time Hensley has been forced to cut back on the meals, which are delivered to homebound seniors and served at 12 different sites throughout the county, including Frankfort, New Lenox, Troy, DuPage and Channahon Townships and in Joliet, Lockport, Monee and Bolingbrook.
Troy Township seniors — currently served every Wednesday and Friday — will get only one meal a week, instead of two, when the Wednesday meal is eliminated.
In Channahon Township, lunch is only served once a month, on the second Wednesday, at the United Methodist Church. That will continue, Hensley said.
Last year, Hensley was forced to eliminate one meal a week during January and February until the state money finally arrived.
“We know we will eventually get it,” she said. But in the meantime, she has cut expenses, and other programs, increased fundraising and maxed out on credit. Eliminating the one meal per week will save $10,000, she said.
Meanwhile, the senior population is growing. She served 10 percent more seniors last year than the year before — 88,000 meals were home delivered to 727 seniors in 2012 and another 22,000 meals were served at the 12 meal sites. There are more than 200 seniors on a waiting list, a number that is certain to increase, Hensley said.
“The worst has not been seen yet,” said Don Chapman, executive director of the PLOWS Council on Aging. His agency provided a total of 38,000 home-delivered meals last year in Palos, Lemont, Orland and Worth townships.
He cut back on meals last year, but is doing “OK so far” this year. “Once you cut, it’s hard to build it back up,” he said.
Some of the 240 people served last year received two meals each day. In September, Chapman said, he cut out the second meals.
“The state is not paying us,” he said, echoing Hensley’s words. “It’s getting worse instead of better.” State money makes up about $700,000 of his $2.5 million budget.
Both directors said they can only ask diners for donations, and never turn away those who can’t afford to pay, but each meal costs them between $6 and $7 and most are delivered by volunteers.
Both agencies are funded through state and federal grants and money from the United Way, and both provide a variety of services to seniors, including recreational and educational programs.
“The fiscal cliff is still hanging out there,” Chapman said. “Cuts will come somewhere down the line and could cause even greater distress.”
By contrast, Bremen Township’s senior lunch program is growing and seeking more funding. Last May, it expanded from three hot lunches per week to five. Because it is federally funded through Age Options, the township has had no problems receiving money, and the meal program is open to anyone, not just Bremen Township residents, lunch site coordinator Sue Ernst said.
“We’re still new. We need more people to find out about us,” she said. Meals are served at a township building at 15350 Oak Park Ave., Oak Forest, for a $4 donation.
The township does not home-deliver meals, but for those who don’t drive, the township’s senior wheels program drives them to the meals and waives the $2 transportation fee.
Despite a slow start, the meal program is becoming increasingly popular, serving as many as 50 seniors, Bremen Township Supervisor Maggie Crotty said.
“It’s really a good meal,” she said.
Crotty, who recently stepped down as a state senator, said she was unaware of the state’s funding issues for the other senior meal programs.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” she said.