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Sequester could impact local food programs

By Angela Ward
May 12, 2013 at 11 p.m.

Several programs for the elderly, including the Meals on Wheels program administered by the Area Agency on Aging, could be hard-hit by the Congressional sequester.

Bettye Mitchell, director of the agency, which is an arm of the East Texas Council of Governments, said the federal budget cuts could impact counseling programs for seniors; the ombudsman program; caregiver and case management; transportation and nutrition programs which includes both home-delivered Meals on Wheels and congregate meals for seniors who can drive.

"They are 100 percent federally funded, so any budget decisions made at that level could definitely affect us," Mitchell said this past week.

The Area Agency on Aging provided 361,299 meals to seniors or disabled people in 14 East Texas counties during 2012, she said.

The agency is now in the eighth month of its budget cycle, but has received only 58 percent of its funds for the 2013 fiscal year, she said.

"Usually we've received 90 to 95 percent of our funds by this point in the year," Mitchell said. "We haven't made any cuts yet, but we're looking at or programs and trying to make some decisions about what we'll do if our federal funding declines."

It's possible that the Area Agency on Aging could use reserves from the East Texas Council on Government to continue its programs even if the federal funds are cut, she said, but no decision on such a procedure has been made.

The degree to which all local food programs will be affected by the Congressional sequestration appears to be directly tied to how dependent they are on federal funding, as is the Area Agency on Aging.

By contrast the Meals on Wheels program operated by Longview Community Ministries is primarily funded through area churches, so their administration does not foresee any impact to their services.

Donna Sharp executive director of Longview Community Ministries, said that agency's Meals on Wheels program does not receive any federal funding.

The East Texas Food Bank provides staples for several food pantries in Longview and surrounding areas.

Dennis Cullinane, director of the East Texas Food Bank, said his agency receives about 15 percent of its direct funding from the federal government, but it also gets about 25 percent of its food from the United States Department of Agriculture.

"The sequester has not had a huge impact on us so far," Cullinane said. "We're actually more concerned about the upcoming farm bill mark up, which could impact whether or not we continue to receive food from the USDA."

He said the agency has been in contact with local representatives trying to make sure the food continues to reach local food banks.

Lois F. Durant, executive director for Tri-County Meals on Wheels which serves Anderson, Cherokee, and Rusk counties, said so far, the impact on that program has not been significant – but it has been noticed.

"Any cuts to our program hurt us," Durant said. "For the past two to three years we have had reductions to the allocation amounts in our budget, which included not only on-site meals, but also home delivered meals."

Tri-County Meals on Wheels has had to dip into reserves for at least two years, she said. The program has sought to save money in the budget in several ways. These have included not replacing a key position in Palestine and saving money in travel by only going to the other sites when absolutely necessary and by not attending state and national conferences.

"We have also managed to cut some of the budget by streamlining some of the home bound routes to save travel and staff time," Durant said. "We have done that by delivering frozen meals to some of the clients that live a distance from the site. We have also not replaced clients who got off the meals for various reasons, with the exception of extreme cases of need."

Tri-County Meals on Wheels is currently in a "wait-and-see" mode, she said, as they don't know yet what kind of cuts they will experience for the 2013-14 fiscal year which starts on October 1, 2013 and goes to Sept. 30, 2014.



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