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Jackson Meals on Wheels leaves money on the table

Jackson County commissioners took the director of the Jackson County Department on Aging to task this week over why Meals On Wheels still has such a large waiting list.


Jackson County commissioners thought the waiting list for Meals On Wheels would be solved after they ponied up an emergency appropriation of $15,000 in February to handle the growing demand among low-income, housebound seniors for a daily meal. At the time, Meals on Wheels was delivering a hot meal to the doorstep of 80 clients a day, but had a waiting list of 43.

Commissioners expected the extra money would help eliminate the waiting list.

But today, Meals On Wheels is serving only a handful more than it was then — now up to 88 clients a day. And it still has a waiting list of 32.

Jackson commissioners this week questioned why more people hadn’t been added to the rolls of Meals On Wheels and why people were still languishing on the waiting list despite the extra funding the county provided.

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“We expanded the budget for that purpose, and at the time we voted on it, I thought it was to take care of that backlog,” Commissioner Doug Cody said. “I see 32 people still on a waiting list, and I don’t know why they are there.”

Eddie Wells, director of the Jackson County Department on Aging, which oversees Meals On Wheels, didn’t have a good answer. In fact, he was somewhat flummoxed by the question, having only been with the agency since April and lacking institutional knowledge of what had transpired before he came.

Wells said people on the waiting list are awarded spots in Meals On Wheels as they open up. The list of who gets meals is in constant flux as clients either die or move into nursing homes. In just the past six weeks, 24 people have moved off the waiting list and gotten into the program, Wells said. 

New applicants, Wells said, are constantly replenishing the number on the waiting list.

“We will continue to be aggressive in pulling people off the waiting list,” Wells said. 

But he is hesitant to add all of them at once.

“We didn’t want to get into a situation where we didn’t have enough money at the end of the year,” Wells said.

To be fair, Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said the county never explicitly instructed Meals On Wheels to serve each and every person who applies for the service. 

“We’ve never said we would provide Meals On Wheels to everyone on the waiting list,” Wooten said. 

“As well off as Jackson County is, we should be ashamed of ourselves if we don’t,” Commissioner Charles Elders replied.

The crux of commissioners’ question, however — why aren’t more people getting Meals On Wheels in light of the extra money they pledged back in February — went unresolved during the discussion.

After the meeting, however, County Finance Director Darlene Fox checked the county’s financial records and found that Meals On Wheels never in fact tapped the extra funds that commissioners made available. The county reimburses Meals On Wheels for the cost of the meals it serves, based on invoices submitted to the county to the tune of $4.88 per meal. Despite the additional $15,000 made available, it was never actually spent.

Commissioners didn’t realize money was being left on the table. Assuming a larger budget was needed, the county actually continued to fund Meals On Wheels at a higher level this new fiscal year, which started in July. The extra $15,000 awarded mid-stream last fiscal year was permanently built into the Meals On Wheels’ budget at the outset of the year this go around.

The budget increase of $15,000 was estimated to provide meals for an additional 30 clients at the time it was awarded in February. But with the number of clients inching up from 80 to only 88, the program is once again on track to not use all the money at its disposal, despite funding being available to serve more people.

Wells said there are other factors at play besides money — namely the volunteer manpower to deliver the meals. Some people on the waiting list live in remote areas that aren’t on the existing Meals On Wheels routes.

“We have to find a volunteer willing to drive all those miles to deliver meals up that way,” Wells said, citing Caney Fork as one example.

There are currently 11 routes.

Cody said if it is a matter of volunteers, not funding, then that’s the type of thing commissioners need to know so the problem can be solved.

“I would like a better explanation,” Cody said.

Commissioner Vicki Greene asked Wells to outline a plan for what it would take to serve everyone.

“If our goal is to completely eliminate the waiting list for Meals On Wheels, you need to tell us what it would take so those in need can be served,” Greene told Wells.


More in the mix

Some commissioners questioned whether Meals On Wheels is losing resources due to an increase in free cafeteria meals served to seniors at two community feeding sites. Known as congregate meals, the Jackson County Department on Aging serves an average of 70 people a day.

Cody suggested reallocating money from the congregate meal program to Meals on Wheels.

 “There is something wrong with the mix of Meals On Wheels and congregate meal funding somewhere. The people who eat congregate meals aren’t as needy as the people living at home,” Cody said. “We don’t want these people living at home to be deprived nutrition.”

Other commissioners agreed that those who show up for the congregate meals at the two senior centers in Webster and Cashiers don’t have as a dire a need, since they can at least get out and about.

The demand for congregate meals has gone up substantially in the past year, and as a result the community meal program was also awarded an emergency budget increase of its own last February to the tune of $14,000. The congregate meal program was formerly budgeted to serve only 50 people a day, but around 70 were showing up.

Previously, the Department on Aging served any seniors who showed up, regardless of a proven need. While the agency asked those eating the meals for donations and contributions on a voluntary basis, it wasn’t required. Recently, however, a litmus test was imposed, and those who don’t meet the need criteria must contribute based on a sliding scale if they want to keep coming.

The new system is bringing in an extra $200 a month to help fund congregate meals, in addition to more than $1,000 in voluntary donations it gets. Also, the free meals have been replaced twice a month with a potluck, where participants bring in the food themselves — saving the program $6,500 a year, Wells said.

So despite the increased number being served, the cost to the county for congregate meals hasn’t gone up substantially, Wells said.

As a result, the extra $14,000 appropriated for the congregate meal program last February was never actually spent either, according to county budget records.

Last fiscal year, the cost of meals served through the two programs was $157,000 — despite having around $190,000 in county funding it could have tapped.

This fiscal year, which started in July, the county budgeted $192,000 between the two meal programs.

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