MEALS ON WHEELS: Close look at programs that fill hearts and stomachs

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AURORA | Gathered around a table at the Aurora Center for Active Adults, the plates piled high with ginger beef, carrots and pineapple compote are far from the most important thing to Julie Monroe and her husband, Don.

For the Monroes and the rest of the diners at the daily senior lunch — which is funded in part via the Volunteers of America Meals on Wheels program — the camaraderie is far, far more important than the heaping portions.

“We’re like family,” Julie Monroe said.

The senior lunch serves between 700 and 800 people each month.

Last week, the White House proposed ending federal funding to the Meals on Wheels Program, a move that Dale Elliott, division director of aging and nutrition services for Volunteers of America Colorado, said would seriously impair his group’s ability to feed people.

“It would definitely effect the numbers that we could serve,” he said. “Would it stop our operations all together? No.”

The exact size of the cut is unknown, but White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said the government “can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good — and great.”

“Meals on Wheels sounds great. Again, that’s a state decision to fund that particular portion, to take the federal money and give it to the states, and say look, we want to give you money for programs that don’t work,” Mulvaney said.

Mulvaney’s comments Thursday caused consternation at the Capitol and beyond as lawmakers from both parties vowed to protect the program, which serves nearly a million meals per day nationwide through a network of more than 5,000 local programs. More than 2.4 million older Americans are served each year, including more than 500,000 veterans.

Elliot said Mulvaney’s claim that the program, which delivers meals to needy seniors as well as cafeteria-style lunches like the one in Aurora, is bogus.

“It does work,” he said. “And there is plenty of factual evidence out there that that is the case.”

For one, Elliot points to the numbers:

• Across the seven-county metro area, his group serves 2,100 hot meals a day. They also dole out frozen meals and other items to people in need.

• Last year, they served more than 577,000 meals, about 200,000 of which were at places like the Aurora Center for Active Adults.

• The 800 local volunteers drive 56 different routes everyday, delivering food to the elderly and the homebound.

And beyond that, Elliott said Meals on Wheels is often the lone visitor some of their clients get each week. Those face-to-face interactions, while often one of the brighter parts of a client’s day, are also crucial because they mean someone is checking in on them in case they have a health issue, he said.

Feeding people also keeps them healthier and limits the sort of catastrophic falls that can lead to lengthy hospital stays.

“There needs to be some fact finding that gets back to the federal side,” he said.

At the Aurora senior center, the notion that Meals on Wheels doesn’t work is a laughable one for the clients and volunteers.

“I know it works,” said Lee Peters, who has been volunteering at the center one day a week for the past two years.

For some clients, the meal they get at the center is their only hot meal of the day, she said. And the volunteers and staff get to know the clients so if they miss a lunch, they often reach out to make sure they are ok.

Patty Hicks, recreation specialist for the city of Aurora, said the social aspect of the weekday senior lunches also can’t be discounted. The lunches get folks out of their home and help them meet fellow seniors.

“It’s hard to enjoy it by yourself,” she said.

The Monroes know that well.

The couple met at the senior center a few years ago and later got married.

And Julie said there is another added bonus to the lunches.

“It’s the only time he eats his vegetables,” the 87-year-old said with a grin, gently elbowing Don as a volunteer plopped down his plate.