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Senior meals program to be slashed

Several locations cutting from five to two meals per week

A program that feeds nutritious meals to senior citizens across Spokane County will be cut by more than half because of budgeting errors and reductions.

“This is going to leave a lot of people in dire straights,” said Ronald O’Brian, a regular at Mid City Concerns Senior Center on West Second Avenue. “There are elderly folks, a lot of women, too, who come down here for a good, warm lunch.”

Meals will be reduced to two days a week rather than five at about nine senior centers, churches and apartment buildings.

The problems arose last month when the Spokane Regional Health District discovered that the amount of money it planned to spend on senior meals this year was about $30,000 less than the amount available from the federal Nutrition Services Incentive Program.

The program had planned to spend $150,200, but only $121,600 was available, said Lynn Quimby, the health district’s program manager of senior nutrition.

“Everybody is trying to pitch in and fill the gap,” she said, “but unfortunately it’s not going to be easy, especially when the outlook for federal funds is going down rather than rising to keep up with this important need.”

Among the seniors hit by the shortfall will be an 82-year-old man named Lyle, who ate dinner Thursday at Mid City Concerns. The World War II veteran fought in Europe, returned to Eastern Washington to raise cattle and spent his free time collecting recyclable cardboard to help pay for senior center operations.

Many seniors find themselves outliving their savings, getting by with the help of fixed Social Security payments and aid programs such as Meals on Wheels.

“We’re supposed to take care of these kinds of people, not take things away,” said Franci Olson-Lamb, who was working at Mid City Concerns on Thursday, making sure people received enough to eat and could stay warm as the weather turns cold. “What does that say about us?”

Mollie Dalpae, executive director of Mid City Concerns Senior Center and Meals on Wheels, called the cutbacks dangerous and vowed to find new funding to ensure that people will still have places to get healthy meals and stay warm this winter.

Quimby said the healthy district also will work to find emergency funding.

She explained that the district pays for the senior meals program using several funding sources, including the incentive program along with a grant through the Older Americans Act.

Each August the district makes funding requests for the next year and quickly receives an allocation estimate. The estimate for 2009 was off by almost a third from what Quimby thought the district had received for 2008. When she inquired about the cut, she discovered the discrepancy between what the health district assumed it was receiving and the actual allocation.

“We’re not sure what happened,” she said.

The shortfalls come at a tough time for the health district. Public health funding is in jeopardy statewide as the economy sours and government budgets shrink.

The health district last week announced more than a dozen layoffs as it ended its drug and alcohol assessment services that help route people into appropriate treatment programs.

Quimby said the district hopes to stretch its 2009 federal allocation to pay for meals four days a week.

“I can’t say that’s a sure thing, but we’ll do our best,” she said.