Meal program re-tools amid financial adversity

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer December 29, 2010 04:40 pm

A non-profit social service agency needs to watch its bottom line and adjust for hard times, the same as a business.

That’s why local seniors have seen some changes in the senior meals program at the Union County Senior Center and at other sites in the county, according to Frank Thomas, Community Connection’s local manager.

 

A major change at the Union County center is that on Mondays and Tuesdays, seniors pay a set price for their meals, rather than give a donation. And on Saturdays, no meals at all are served at the center.

The changes were made as part of an effort to balance the books.

“Since the agency is funded on a two-year cycle, we have no alternative to balancing the budget by June 30,” Thomas said.

Thomas said that at the end of this fiscal year — halfway through the current budget biennium — the Community Connection senior services division found itself short about $38,000.

The reasons are complex. Thomas said that for one thing, labor and other costs have gone up, but funding from the federal Older Americans Act has remained stagnant for years.

Another problem is that Community Connection’s transit service, which operates a fixed route public transit system and also provides on-demand transportation for seniors and disabled, moved out of the senior center two years ago.

In the past, transit helped pay for utilities, office supplies and shared equipment leases. That help went away when the transit program moved into the newly constructed Union County Transportation Center.

“When transit outgrew the senior center and moved into its own building, elder programs had to start carrying their own weight,” Thomas said.

Added to all of that is the fact that, due to demographic shifts, fewer seniors than ever before are eating at senior meal sites, Thomas said.

“Donations at the door have always been a mainstay,” he said. “There was a time when we used to have 120 people come in for a meal. Today we’re lucky if we have 50,” he said.

For the first year of the current biennium, money from the federal stimulus act took up the budgetary slack, but by the middle of the biennium Community Connection found itself needing to make up the big shortfall.

“When the cuts finally came, they were deeper and more painful than may have been necessary with the benefit of time,” Thomas said.

At the Union County Senior Center, a decision was made to cut Older Americans Act meals on Mondays and Tuesdays. That is because the Act’s contribution doesn’t come close to offsetting the agency’s costs.

The Monday and Tuesday menu includes lunch specials, sandwiches and salads. Typically, a meal costs seniors $4 to $5, not much more than what customers typically donate.

“I wouldn’t say it’s better or worse, it’s just different,” Thomas said.

Older Americans Act meals are still served on Wednesdays, Thursday and Fridays, with people donating whatever they can afford. Saturday meals at the Union County facility have been discontinued altogether.

Outside of La Grande, Older Americans Act meals were cut back at meal sites in Union, Elgin and North Powder. Later, the satellite sites split off into independent or quasi-independent community operations.

Thomas said he knows the new senior meals model at the Union County center doesn’t please everybody. He has heard complaints.

On the other hand, he said that closing the La Grande meal site on Mondays and Tuesdays wasn’t an acceptable alternative.

For one thing, food service staff has other obligations and is present and working whether Older Americans Act meals are served or not.

For another, senior meals provide an important opportunity for socialization.

“We’re still getting people through the door. We’re still providing seniors with a social network,” he said.

 By this month, after trimming programs and shifting staff, Community Connection had cut the $38,000 deficit to about $18,000. Thomas is optimistic the agency can make up the remainder by growing revenue streams and developing new partnerships.

Food services show particular promise as a revenue generator. Recently, for instance, Community Connection started catering meals for civic group meetings in the transit hub conference room.

Donations from the business community have helped in the past, and will continue to play an important part in senior services operations, Thomas said.

Though changes made this year are likely to be permanent, Thomas said the senior center in La Grande will survive, providing older people with a place to get together for meals, for entertainment and for the pleasure of each other’s company.

“We are not closed. We are actually busier than we’ve ever been. We are re-tooling to meet those community needs,” he said.