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Program hits tough times

Valley Meals on Wheels loses funding, food provider

Valley Meals on Wheels director Pam Almeida knew she was $35,000 in the red at the beginning of October when she started planning her annual fundraiser. But things would soon get worse.

In the second week of October came word that her organization would lose $5,000 in funding provided by Spokane Regional Health District after an accounting error was discovered. Then last week, the local Meals on Wheels organizations were notified that the commercial catering company Aramark that provided food for all Spokane County senior meal sites was canceling its contract as of the end of November.

The double hit has left the struggling organization frantically searching for alternatives.

“I’ve been talking to churches about using their kitchens,” Almeida said. “We’re going for an interim bridge on our way to a permanent solution.”

The permanent solution would be Valley Meals having a commercial kitchen to produce meals for Spokane and Spokane Valley meal sites and home deliveries. After lining up a kitchen, the organization also would need to find food cooks to prepare it. But Almeida is struggling to maintain a positive outlook.

“In the long term it will be more cost effective,” she said. “We can use volunteers; we can use donated food. We were moving in that direction, just not this soon.”

Mid-City Concerns Senior Center and Meals on Wheels director Mollie Dalpae is also looking for the positives. A church in Spokane is willing to loan out its kitchen, leaving Dalpae to find a way to transport the hot food downtown and to other meal sites.

“We’re hoping for the best,” she said. “We’re certainly planning for the worst.”

Almeida said that Redeemer Lutheran Church has agreed to let the organizations use its kitchen to reheat frozen meals, which are provided by another company, for daily deliveries. “Redeemer is a short-term fix,” she said. “We’re still looking for a kitchen.”

Right now, frozen meals are delivered to seniors to be used on the weekends, when volunteers don’t deliver hot meals.

Valley Meals on Wheels provides about 300 hot meals to seniors each day at its meal sites and through home delivery. Mid-City Concerns feeds about 340 people a day.

Almeida said she can feed five people seven days a week for a year for $5,000, the same amount lost to the accounting error. “It’s only $25 to feed somebody for a week,” she said.

The contract problems first surfaced when the Spokane Regional Health District’s senior nutrition program cut meals from five days a week to two at most meal sites in Spokane in response to budget problems, said Aramark director of food services Jason Jackson.

The contract called for 750 meals per day, and that number was abruptly lowered. Jackson said he was told that the contract would be restructured and Aramark would bid on the new contract.

“We were told that they would be rebidding on it and not to worry about our jobs,” Jackson said. “We don’t know what’s going on.”

Lynn Quimby, the health district’s program manager of senior nutrition, declined comment on the contract issue this week.

Almeida said she hadn’t heard about Aramark’s intention to restructure the contract but still plans to move ahead with a kitchen. “I’ve got to,” she said. “I can’t leave it to chance.”

Even if a new contract for meals is signed, it wouldn’t be done until mid-December with a contract start date of Jan. 1. That would leave the organizations without a meal provider for a month.

Almeida had already decided to increase her fundraising goal to $49,000 before the news about the lost meal provider, but that amount doesn’t include any costs for a kitchen.

For the first time, Valley Meals on Wheels is switching to a direct-mail fundraiser instead of its annual ball, sending letters to previous supporters and local businesses asking for donations. The annual ball was too time-intensive and only raised about $4,000, Almeida said. “It was taking me away from the mission.”

The organization’s fund drive will continue through the end of the year. Those interested in volunteering in the new kitchen are asked to call 924-6976. Commercial grade kitchen equipment is also needed.