Senior meals program faces cuts

A subsidized program that has provided meals to Island seniors for nearly 30 years has lost its financial support, forcing the Vashon-Maury Senior Center to raise its suggested donation for the lunches and putting the program, some fear, into jeopardy.

Senior Services, a Seattle-based nonprofit that administers the community dining program to more than 20 senior centers throughout the region, faced a $50,000 cut in federal funds for the program earlier this year. As a result, the organization had to end its support at three sites — Vashon, Burien and Maple Valley — where participation was lowest, said Denise Klein, executive director of Senior Services.

The federal subsidy, which covered most of the costs of the meals, has meant diners at Vashon’s senior center have been asked to donate about $3 per meal for the past several years; most donated a little more than $2. As of the beginning of April, the Island-based senior center will continue the dining program without the federal support, requiring it to seek a donation of $4.75 per meal, said Abbie Nielsen, the senior center’s executive director. The donation, she added, will be “very strongly recommended.”

But Nielsen and others fear the higher costs could cause even fewer seniors to come to the lunch — currently offered four days a week — and eventually lead to the program’s demise. The senior center’s board, meanwhile, has put together a task force to explore other funding options in an effort to find a new way to subsidize the program — a noon-time gathering that provides not only nutritious meals but also a chance for seniors to spend time together.

“We’ve known the numbers have been declining, and we’ve worked hard at trying to maintain and build a program,” said Nielsen. “I’ll be very sad if we can’t find a way to continue it in some form.”

Those who participate say they, too, are concerned about the program’s future. At the senior center’s lunch on Monday — a St. Patrick’s Day celebration that included a menu of corned beef, cabbage and pickled beets — some said they enjoy the meals immensely and want to see the program continue.

“The food is excellent,” said Bea Coldeen, 88. “But I certainly am concerned, because I don’t think most seniors can pay $4.75 for lunch so many times a week. Who could pay that much?”

“I know for a fact some won’t be able to pay. And I hate to see that,” added Fred Losornio, 88, who shared a table with Coldeen.

Both said they come to nearly every lunch offered at the senior center, a brick building on the corner of Bank Road and 100th Ave. S.W. On this particular day, about 15 people shared a meal that was followed by a round of singing led by Arlene Shade; in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, they sang “Oh, Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

Luella Lodahl, 90, said she’s been coming to the lunch program since its inception in 1979.

“Mostly, it’s the fellowship,” she said.

But the lunch program has seen a steady decline in participation over the last several years, with sometimes as few as eight people in attendance. Nielsen, who has to order lunches without knowing for certain how many will show, usually orders for 18. The meals are cooked by Vashon Community Care Center, which has a contract from Senior Services to provide the meals, Nielsen said.

She and Klein said the decline is due to what Klein called “a cultural shift” among the seniors of today. Fewer and fewer want a large, hot meal in the middle of the day, preferring maybe soup or salad. But the federal regulations governing the program require that each meal provide one-third of an adult’s daily nutritional needs, thus limiting the kinds of meals senior centers can offer, Klein said.

What’s more, many of today’s seniors are busy participating in other programs or activities and thus have little time for a mid-day meal, others said.

“We’re not attracting the younger seniors, because they’re out on their boats or they’re with their grandchildren or they’re gardening,” said Deirdre Petree, a board member at the senior center.

The fact that Vashon’s seniors have lots of interesting things to do with their time is good, she added. But at the same time, she said, seniors need to know that with the lunch program, it’s a “use it or lose it” situation.

“The lunch program, which is kind of our anchor, is drifting away slowly,” Petree said.

What’s more, Nielsen said, the lunch program adds to the senior center’s overall health and vitality. Because it has drawn people to the center over the years, it in turn ensures that its numbers stay high enough to attract other grants and funds, Nielsen said.

Currently, King County provides about a quarter of the senior center’s annual budget. The county, however, plans to move away from a guaranteed funding amount towards an annual request for proposals from each senior center, which will make those “numbers served” even more important, Nielsen said.

“Who comes to our lunch program is part of our overall statistics,” she said. “If that takes a drop because the program declines, that has the potential of impacting us in other areas.”

The senior center plans to make some changes in an effort to make the lunch program more enticing, Petree said. The senior center, for instance, has bought new silverware, glasses and table cloths — drawn from an account separate from the dining program — to improve the presentation. They’ve also dropped dessert from the menu to make it more affordable and changed the name to Dining with Friends.

But some say they’re frustrated that Senior Services has axed its funding due to Vashon’s low participation numbers, a measure of use that doesn’t seem fair on an Island that can’t draw on a large population base.

“They looked around to see where they could cut and we were one of them, based on the fact that we’re one of the smaller ones,” said Betty Beymer, president of the senior center’s board. “Well of course we’re one of the smaller ones. We live on an island.”

Beymer, who said she believes the lunch program provides a vital social network for those seniors who attend, worries about what will happen if the senior center has to cancel it altogether.

“I just hate to see us lose the program, because once we lose something like that, it’s just terribly hard to get something going again,” she said.