Local Senior Meals Program Struggles to Maintain Services

Seniors and people with disabilities aren’t going hungry – yet. But the possibility is too close for the comfort of Debbie Perou, Rockingham County Nutrition and Meals on Wheels director.

Perou supervises Meals on Wheels and congregate meals at senior centers and other places for Chester, Sandown and Hampstead, as well as other nearby towns.

Last month, Perou joined U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, for a ride-along to sites in the Salem area. Shaheen, staff and volunteers chatted with seniors about what the program – and Washington budget cuts – meant to them.

Shaheen noted concern about the effects of “sequestration” budget cuts on food service to local seniors, a concern Perou echoed.

Perou saw a loss of $81,000 in the last fiscal year due to budget cuts, and is bracing for a possible second round this January. The programs were level-funded from the state and federal governments for four years.

She relies on donations from private foundations, including the Alexander Eastman Foundation and United Way, and corporations such as Walmart to make up the difference.

“When it was level-funded, we were already stretching,” she said. “After the cut last year, we had to drop 17,000 meals.”

The program has three main components, Perou said. Healthy, more active seniors can come to one of the congregate meals at a public site. This is the best option, she said, because it’s good for them to get out and connect with others.

Other seniors, some of them frail, receive the hot meal at noon at their homes. The basic delivery program is five days a week, she said, though there’s a customized option where clients who might otherwise not eat can receive extended service.

After the $81,000 disappeared from her budget, Perou trimmed back service to younger seniors and scrutinized the needs of those receiving weekend meals. She’s also had to be stricter about income “guidelines.”

But she’s not happy about it, noting that seniors living alone don’t tend to eat right. “Their medication might depress their appetite, they might not be able to get out and shop, they might be depressed,” she said. Any one of these needs could be solved with a ready-made meal delivered by a cheerful volunteer.

Perou has always had to subsidize her allotment with fund-raising, she said. The government gives her about 60 percent of the cost of each meal, even under the previous level-funding, she said.

Last year, Perou’s staff and volunteers served 36,000 meals in Derry. That breaks down to 4,500 congregate meals and the rest delivered to homes, with 291 clients.

Perou is taking it day by day and meal by meal. The most recent annual giving campaign went well, she said. She’s hoping to see the lost funding restored.

“I’d like to say to some of the politicians, ‘Let’s see you not eat for a day,’” she said.
Service in local towns is:

• Chester: Total meals, 758. Meals on Wheels, 758. Clients, five.
• Hampstead: Total meals, 9,475. Meals in dining halls, 2,188. Meals on Wheels, 7,281. Clients, 108.
• Sandown: Total meals, 2,640. Meals in dining halls, 408. Meals on Wheels, 2,232. Clients, 26.

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