Nobody is going to miss a meal.
But scores of Meals on Wheels recipients in Salt Lake County are going to lose out on a day of human contact when the county Aging Services Department ends its Saturday lunch deliveries later this month because of federal sequestration.
With the threat of more automatic federal funding cuts because Congress can't agree on a budget, "We needed to look at our operations and be more efficient to not have a waiting list," Aging Services Director Sarah Brenna told County Council members last week as they ate a typical Meals on Wheels lunch.
The decision was made to eliminate Saturday deliveries, which saves about $30,000 that can be used to prop up other division programs for seniors. Brenna said about 10 percent of the 1,450 customers who receive meals each weekday also get weekend meals delivered on Saturday.
The recipients will still receive their weekend meals, she emphasized, but Saturday meals will be delivered along with Thursday's lunches, and Sunday meals will accompany Friday deliveries.
"We'll be testing this for several months. We want to make sure there aren't unintended consequences," Brenna said. "About 95 percent of Saturday recipients have home health [workers] or someone else going into the home on the weekends to make sure [the clients] are OK."
In a kitchen beneath the County Government Center at 2001 S. State, 323,000 meals were prepared last year for homebound Meals on Wheels recipients "usually your frailer, isolated seniors who can't prepare meals for themselves," Brenna noted and senior centers. That was 5,000 more than 2011.
Meals on Wheels is not inexpensive. It costs $7.61 for each home delivery, figuring in the costs of the vehicle, gas, food and staffing. About half of the Meals on Wheels budget is covered by federal grants through the Older Americans Act, Brenna said; the county pays for the rest.
And although the county suggests a donation of $2.50 per meal to help offset program costs, she said her agency does not cut off anyone who cannot or does not pay.
"We get about 50 percent of the requested $2.50 donation back," she said. "We do everything we can to avoid putting someone into that situation. It's more difficult for me to get [delivery] people to ask for a donation. But it's a federal requirement."
Council Chairman Steve DeBry applauded Brenna for finding ways to make division operations more efficient so that no elderly person seeking a meal has to be turned away or put onto a waiting list.
"Few things are sacred in the budget, but seniors are," DeBry said. "That's almost a sacred cow for me to make sure they're taken care of."
Councilman Randy Horiuchi also praised the program, reminiscing that one of his favorite memories as a longtime county politician involves going on a ride-along with a Meals on Wheels driver.
"It was just a great experience," he said. "Seeing the value of human contact for the recipients is priceless."
Brenna told the council that if sequestration lingers, more cuts can be expected in Aging Services' programs. "But we would recommend changes to other programs before we touch meals," she pledged.