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Is the Meals on Wheels program failing vulnerable ES residents?

March 3, 2018 – The people who have eaten the frozen dinners provided by the Meals on Wheels program don’t mince words when describing them.

“Slop,” said one senior.

“Not fit for a dog,” added another. “Someone ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

The frozen meals were once served at both the Senior Center at the Excelsior Springs Community Center and to the homebound residents. But Denise Bedford, Senior Center Director at the Community Center, lobbied Mid-American Regional Council (MARC), who provides the meals, to reinstate the hot ones at the Community Center, for several reasons.

“There were problems with portion sizes,” Bedford explained. “We would have to measure things out, and a lot of times, they weren’t sending what was required. And our people didn’t like them, so our numbers dropped.”

Bedford stated that she went from seeing between 30 and 40 people a day, to around five to 10. Once the hot meals were reinstated, the numbers went back up.

The homebound recipients, however, are still receiving the frozen meals. Bedford has no say in that.

Furthermore, adding to the concern is that the meals are delivered once a week, rather than daily. That daily delivery functions on two levels; one, it provides people with hot, nutritious food, and two, it gives someone an opportunity to make sure the recipient is ok.

Gary Easley used to deliver those meals daily, and he is worried about the quality of the food, which is shipped in from Florida.

“How many times has that food thawed out and been refrozen?” he wondered.

James Stowe, director of aging and adult services at MARC, believes there’s nothing wrong with the current program in Excelsior Springs. He states that he has not yet received any complaints from the homebound recipients.

“We have not received any complaints from Excelsior Springs,” Stowe said. “By and large, the frozen meals have been well-received, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Easley isn’t surprised there have been no complaints. A vulnerable population, who is receiving a service, may not feel as though they have the right to voice concerns, he said.

“This may be all they got,” Easley said. “They aren’t going to complain and maybe risk losing it.”

Stowe admits that the decision to go from daily delivery of hot food to a weekly delivery of frozen was a budgetary decision. Although the budget for the Meals on Wheels program hasn’t been cut, the funding for it hasn’t increased since 2009, while the need for the program has steadily grown, as have food prices. The program is funded through federal dollars funneled through the Older Americans Act, along with matching funds from the state and local levels.

The cost of a hot meal, delivered daily, and including transportation costs, is around $9 per meal. The cost per meal for the frozen dinners delivered weekly, including transportation costs, is $5.68. The base cost of the hot meal is $6. The frozen meals save significant money.

When asked why the frozen meals, which did not meet quality standards for the Community Center were still considered sufficient for homebound recipients, Stowe stated that the issues had been satisfactorily addressed.

“We did have some portion size issues, as well is issues with rethermalization, with the vendor that provides the frozen meals,” Stowe said. “Rethermalization” refers to the act of frozen food thawing and being re-frozen. Stowe states that the problems were fixed.

The quality and taste of the frozen meals remains in question, however.

Mary Pendleton, who is blind and received Meals on Wheels because of her disability, says that if she were homebound and had to receive the frozen meals, she’d rather go hungry.

“It was awful,” she said. “The vegetables were cooked down to mush, and you couldn’t ever tell what the meat even was.”

Pendleton now goes up to the Community Center to receive her meals, because she can’t eat the frozen ones sent to her home. She says they are inedible.

Another major concern about the transition from a daily delivery to a weekly is that the homebound recipients lose that daily connection with another human being. But Stowe claims a weekly check-in is better than a daily check-in.

“There is no substantial connection between health outcomes and a daily delivery” versus a weekly, Stowe explained. He claims that a weekly check-in helps better identify potential issues because there is more of a gap between visits, allowing drivers to better assess change.

Mary Pendleton would disagree.

“I miss my guy coming in and asking me, ‘Mary, how are you doing?’ and chatting. He would help me with my food, tell me what I got. You don’t get that interaction with the weekly delivery. I miss it,” Pendleton said.

The loss of the daily check-in for homebound residents is one of the deepest concerns Easley has over the program change. He has seen first-hand that it’s necessary.

“I’ve found people in diabetic comas,” he said, or in unhygienic conditions because of an inability to take care of the situation.

“I believe I even found a broken hip, once,” he added.

Easley could get these people help or refer them on to other services when needed. Now, there is no one to check in on the homebound residents in Excelsior Springs daily and hasn’t been since October of 2017.

Molly McGovern, current city manager, used to supervise the transportation program for the city. The drivers delivered the meals for the Meals on Wheels recipients.

“I would hear the stories first-hand from our drivers about the need that existed, not just for a nutritious meal, but also for a well-being visit every day,” McGovern stated. “I am aware that there were many who could not open the packaging to eat their meal, such as to open a milk carton due to arthritis, etc., much less to take a frozen meal and properly prepare it to be eaten, given the range of limitations that may exist.  But, mostly to have someone to speak to at least for a moment each day. We also from time to time would find someone who needed medical assistance.”

Stowe stated that MARC would not be unopposed in reinstating the hot meals for homebound recipients, if somehow the transportation costs could be defrayed. He claimed that Excelsior Springs lacks a pool of volunteers willing to donate their time to delivering the meals, which would bring the costs down from $9 per meal, to $6 per meal.

“MARC does not determine the model the community follows,” Stowe said, and invited input from residents.

“I would love to see if there are volunteers out there who would be interested in taking on the home-deliveries to get us back to a daily hot meal,” McGovern stated.  “I worked with a business group in Kearney that ran their home-bound meal program with volunteers and the businesses all took time once a month to be on the volunteer schedule, as well as a regular group of individuals.  I recently saw on the Channel 9 news that the Liberty home-bound deliveries had too many volunteers; so, I believe with a little effort we could have a successful volunteer program.”

McGovern explained that the City of Excelsior Springs has a new volunteer coordinator whom she hopes will be able to recruit volunteers for the Meals on Wheels program.  In the meantime, if interested in volunteering or donating, contact Denise Bedford at the Community Center, at 816-656-2500.

By Samantha Kilgore • kimeberely@leaderpress.com

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2 Responses to Is the Meals on Wheels program failing vulnerable ES residents?

  1. Katelenihan Reply

    March 3, 2018 at 12:45 pm

    I believe that Stowe needs to put his statistics where his mouth is. He is tying to justify his decisions. If you hold a position as he does, with a mission to the vulnerable of society, then your job goes beyond supervision and management, and extends to serving those recipients. mARC has done less than its best for a long time and that is our fault also.
    As a former recipient at the Senior Center, and also a former nutrition professor, I can say without a oubt that those meals were not nutritious. But they eww hot and filling and gave energy for the day. The social aspect was very appealing to me, and Denise and her husband are wonderful and caring people.

  2. Diane Carrel Reply

    March 3, 2018 at 7:32 pm

    For a few years, I took care of my mom and my disabled husband in two different locations across town from each other. I was delighted when Denise Bedford helped me get Meals on Wheels for mom as it it eliminated one trip for me back and forth across town every day and the meals were at least warm when they arrived. But as time went by, I saw the portions shrink and several times I had to look at the menu to even know what the meat was. Then I noticed mom was only taking a bite or two and then just throwing it in the trash. I asked her if she wanted to just stop the service, and she was adamant that I not do that because she so enjoyed Gary Easley coming every day. She said he was so nice and always took the time to have a short conversation with her, not to mention the comfort I had to know mom would be checked on for me. Mom is gone now, but I am appalled that this has become a once a week program with frozen food that they still have to prepare, not to mention the decrease in nutritional value. Donations were not mandatory, but mom insisted that I make a monthly donation, as I’m sure a lot of the seniors do. Stowe needs to be replaced with someone with a heart.

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