Meals on Wheels lunch program moves away from Multnomah Arts Center amid budget cuts

SUBMITTED PHOTO: MEALS ON WHEELS - The Meals on Wheels on-site lunch program moved from the Multnomah Arts Center to the Meals on Wheels site next door.

For many years, due to an agreement with Meals on Wheels, Multnomah Arts Center served as a gathering spot for seniors to eat a hardy lunch and socialize with their peers in an accomodating dining hall each day throughout the work week.

But those times are no longer.

Due to $400,000 in funding cuts from Multnomah County, Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that provides 1.3 million meals annually to senior citizens across the Portland metro area, relocated its lunch program to its headquarters across the street and offers lunches on-site Tuesdays and Thursdays instead of five days a week.

Meals on Wheels staff say the changes were made to keep the organization viable moving forward.

"We wanted to make sure we were honoring those people (who attend the lunches). And at the same time we have a responsibility to be here for the next generation and to make sure we are doing everything we can to honor the donations that are coming from the community," Multnomah Meals on Wheels Manager Heidi Miller said.

In deliberating ways to account for the loss of funding, reducing overhead costs was a key priority. Because it paid rent and staffing costs at the art center even though its headquarters have an expansive kitchen, moving the program was a logical cost-cutting measure, according to staff. But they still wanted to provide a social setting for seniors to congregate.  

"As we look around the county and see where we provide what service and how much it costs we're looking at where we can cut expenses that don't have direct results of affecting the people as much as covering the overhead," Meals on Wheels Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Washington said.

Miller says the people who were once active volunteers have become recipients in recent years and volunteer participation is declining.  

"There's a real identification with the neighborhood. And so we had volunteers who were very active early on. They were founders; they were part of the structure of our organizations. Then over time they became recipients either at the dining room or at home delivered meals," Miller said. "I see that everyday. I see folks that have spent a good chunk of their life with us." 

Meals on Wheels staff told seniors in advance about the change and sent out notices.

"We all have difficulty with transitions and loss, emotional adjustments, but that's especially true for our older population," Miller said. "I think our program did a really good job of telegraphing them, letting them know that changes were being considered."

Miller says the lunch attendees have taken the transition better than she expected and gave workers an enthusiastic welcome once they returned from a two-week hiatus.  

"They really love it because it's well-lit. It's nice. They feel loved in this space and they certainly are. The first day we did the lunch we got a spontaneous applause which was just great because they missed us," Miller said. "It's been a positive. All of us were nervous about it but I think it's turned out really well." 

Despite the cuts, Meals on Wheels is still sending a limited number of lunches over to Multnomah Arts Center on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and its delivery program continues to provide daily meals for all who sign up, qualify for the program and live in close proximity. They recently went away from delivering hot meals though, to improve food safety and to preserve nutrients. They also no longer provide soup and a vegetarian option during the on-site lunches.

"Every time you go through that cooking process you change the composition of the meal. So the cold pack lets us maintain food safety better, control that element and also send out this really attractive plate. It looks appetizing," Miller said.

 Meals on Wheels also shuttered its site in Sherwood last year and consolidated programs in Beaverton and other areas. Washington is unsure if further cuts are on the horizon but says that cuts to social services federally and at the state level affect the county's bottom line and in turn the program's funding.

"I think that everyone, whether it's the feds or the state or the county, they all have really challenging budgets right now and so do we," Miller said. "I don't think there's anyone that's wearing a black hat. I think everyone is trying to do the best they can."

 And the size of the baby boomer generation could balloon the scope of the program and spread resources even thinner.  

"The greatest challenge the community has to learn is what it means to age and to respond to ageing as a community," Miller said.  

Washington says, unlike many similar programs across the country, Meals on Wheels does not have a waiting list for delivery service and she hopes it won't have to turn people away if funding continues to recede.  

To do that, Meals on Wheels staff is working on other fundraising mechanisms such as the "Stride for Seniors", which is a "non-competitive fun walk" and will take place April 22 at Portland International Raceway.

Meals on Wheels also sells meals for programs like the Portland Children's Lobby and the Beaverton Warming Shelter and could add more partnerships like this to boost revenue. It also sells artisanal popcorn.  

"We use our capacity in our central kitchen downstairs in the way we do our business and our model so that we can feed other people who need it and they can pay us for it and that helps us spread our overhead out and feed our seniors," Washington said. "All of our government funding is used up for the year. So the next senior that enrolls, we want to make sure we can feed them. So we're always working on how best to do that."

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