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Amherst struggles with meals program for the elderly

  • Wayno Tuominen, left, with Highland Valley Elder Services, is assisted by volunteer Robert Ricci, with a delivery of meals to the Bangs Community Center in Amherst on Monday. Drivers then leave from the Bangs Center to deliver the Meals On Wheels to individuals around the Amherst area.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Wayno Tuominen, left, with Highland Valley Elder Services, is assisted by volunteer Robert Ricci, with a delivery of meals to the Bangs Community Center in Amherst on Monday. Drivers then leave from the Bangs Center to deliver the Meals On Wheels to individuals around the Amherst area.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Wayno Tuominen, right, with Highland Valley Elder Services, is assisted by Amherst volunteer Robert Ricci in bringing in a delivery of meals to the Bangs Community Center in Amherst, May 6, 2013. The town manages the Meals on Wheels program on its own and has had to make spending cuts.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Wayno Tuominen, right, with Highland Valley Elder Services, is assisted by Amherst volunteer Robert Ricci in bringing in a delivery of meals to the Bangs Community Center in Amherst, May 6, 2013. The town manages the Meals on Wheels program on its own and has had to make spending cuts.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Highland Valley Elder Services Nutrition Site Director Sandy Beighley, left, and Amherst driver Marcie McCullough, right, unpack meals as they are delivered by Wayno Tuominen, center, of HVES at the Bangs Community Center in Amherst on Monday. Several local drivers, like McCullough, then deliver the Meals On Wheels to individuals around the Amherst area.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Highland Valley Elder Services Nutrition Site Director Sandy Beighley, left, and Amherst driver Marcie McCullough, right, unpack meals as they are delivered by Wayno Tuominen, center, of HVES at the Bangs Community Center in Amherst on Monday. Several local drivers, like McCullough, then deliver the Meals On Wheels to individuals around the Amherst area.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Wayno Tuominen, with Highland Valley Elder Services, delivers meals to the Bangs Community Center in Amherst on Monday where drivers, like Marcie McCullough, left, then deliver the Meals On Wheels to individuals around the Amherst area.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Wayno Tuominen, with Highland Valley Elder Services, delivers meals to the Bangs Community Center in Amherst on Monday where drivers, like Marcie McCullough, left, then deliver the Meals On Wheels to individuals around the Amherst area.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Bangs Community Center in Amherst, which is home to many programs, including Meals On Wheels at the Senior Center, is being considered as the site of a health center for low-income patients. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The Bangs Community Center in Amherst, which is home to many programs, including Meals On Wheels at the Senior Center, is being considered as the site of a health center for low-income patients.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Wayno Tuominen, left, with Highland Valley Elder Services, is assisted by volunteer Robert Ricci, with a delivery of meals to the Bangs Community Center in Amherst on Monday. Drivers then leave from the Bangs Center to deliver the Meals On Wheels to individuals around the Amherst area.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Wayno Tuominen, right, with Highland Valley Elder Services, is assisted by Amherst volunteer Robert Ricci in bringing in a delivery of meals to the Bangs Community Center in Amherst, May 6, 2013. The town manages the Meals on Wheels program on its own and has had to make spending cuts.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Highland Valley Elder Services Nutrition Site Director Sandy Beighley, left, and Amherst driver Marcie McCullough, right, unpack meals as they are delivered by Wayno Tuominen, center, of HVES at the Bangs Community Center in Amherst on Monday. Several local drivers, like McCullough, then deliver the Meals On Wheels to individuals around the Amherst area.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Wayno Tuominen, with Highland Valley Elder Services, delivers meals to the Bangs Community Center in Amherst on Monday where drivers, like Marcie McCullough, left, then deliver the Meals On Wheels to individuals around the Amherst area.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The Bangs Community Center in Amherst, which is home to many programs, including Meals On Wheels at the Senior Center, is being considered as the site of a health center for low-income patients. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

Senior Center Director Nancy Pagano told the Council on Aging last week that the precarious financial situation for the program, which is managed by the town on behalf of Highland Valley Elder Services, has forced two immediate changes.

First, all drivers who bring meals to the homes of seniors in Amherst and Pelham four days a week are being asked to forgo the 50 cents per mile reimbursement. Pagano said all current drivers have agreed to continue, though the change could make it harder to attract new volunteers.

Second, nutrition site director Sandra Beighley, who has been working 3½ hours per day at the congregate meal site at the Bangs Community Center, is having 30 minutes trimmed from each of her workdays.

In some respects, the issues faced by Amherst are unique among the communities in Highland Valley’s territory, as only Amherst and Southwick handle the actual delivery of meals.

“They have to operate efficiently to make that work,” said Nancy Mathers, the nutrition program director for Highland Valley.

Amherst’s tradition of operating its own nutrition site dates back to 1976, when Highland Valley began offering help for meals programs, Pagano said. Amherst decided then that having its own meal site director who works with other staff was best for meeting participants’ needs, she said.

“As a result of paying a little more for the nutrition site director, we don’t have the constant turnover of site directors as many other nutrition sites do,” she said.

Numbers changing

Mathers said Highland Valley prepares more than 700 home-delivered meals a day and an additional 200 that are served at meal sites like Amherst’s. Highland Valley recruits and pays its drivers and offers them a mileage reimbursement, she said, though getting volunteers is increasingly difficult.

Pagano said Highland Valley is paying Amherst $1.19 per meal the Senior Center either delivers or serves at the Bangs Center. That figure is calculated by determining the average cost of making and delivering each meal in the 24 communities served by Highland Valley through the federal Title 3 Older Americans Act.

In budget year 2009, Amherst received $19,931, while in 2012 Amherst got $12,857. There was also a corresponding decline in the number of meals delivered in Amherst and Pelham, from 16,749 to 10,805 over that three-year span.

As a result, Pagano said, Amherst was facing a $2,000 to $3,000 deficit.

Other communities across Highland Valley’s service area are seeing a decrease in the number of meals delivered as well, indicating that the safety net is eroding, Pagano said. “It’s a grim picture, to tell the truth.”

Highland Valley prepares its meals in a kitchen at the Walter Salvo House apartment complex in Northampton, distributing these meals to most Hampshire County communities and several in Hampden county. More than three-quarters of the meals are delivered directly to homes by drivers hired by Highland Valley, with the remainder being served at meal sites in Amherst, Northampton, Easthampton, Hadley and Huntington.

Highland Valley determines the eligibility standards, including whether a person is unable to prepare a nutritious meal, has no one available who can regularly cook for him or her or is unable to get to the community’s meal site.

But as Highland Valley faces mounting financial pressures, Pagano said, it is raising these eligibility standards, eliminating recipients and more quickly transitioning people to other home-care programs.

Mathers acknowledged that there has been a reduction, but said the reason is more complicated than financial pressures. Different programs, she said, are affected in different ways. It’s a matter of doing a better job in screening people and getting people to make better choices about the services they need, she said.

“I don’t think there is one single issue around federal funding,” Mathers said.

Other towns

In Northampton, Highland Valley handles the administrative details for senior citizens who receive home-delivered meals, said senior center Director Patricia Shaughnessy. She said the extent of her center’s involvement is recruiting drivers to assist Highland Valley and referring people to the meal site, which is at the Walter Salvo apartments.

Highland Valley also identifies eligible seniors in Easthampton and then handles all deliveries to homebound elders and brings meals to the site where lunch is served Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Linda Talbot, the executive director of the Easthampton Senior Center, said volunteers oversee the meal site and provide transportation for those who need it. But only about 15 to 20 people come each day.

“We would like more people to come and take advantage of it,” Talbot said, noting the meal is nutritious and the atmosphere welcoming.

People who participate must be at least 60, give 48 hours notice and make some contribution toward the $6.25 per meal price.

Pagano said both delivering meals and running the meal sites has been difficult for Highland Valley throughout the region.

“It’s hard to find good site managers and volunteers who will do this,” Pagano said.

Two years ago, former Highland Valley Executive Director John Lutz approached the town of Amherst about using a portion of its Community Development Block Grant money to cover some of the costs of the program. At the time, Lutz said reduced federal funding was posing problems.

But municipal officials have been reluctant to take on costs the federal nutrition subsidies should cover.

“The town of Amherst should not be expected to pay like that,” Pagano said.

The more drastic measure, taken two years ago and which Pagano said she was hesitant to take, was reducing the number of days meals are delivered. Whereas they had once delivered hot meals five days a week, reduced budgets means delivering five meals in four days, with one of the meals delivered on Tuesdays frozen. This reduces one of the auxiliary benefits of the program, which is to do well-being check on elders, Pagano said.

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