Sequestration could empty more plates

By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Jul 05, 2013
Photo by: Donated Photo A senior citizen at the Haywood County Senior Resource Center holds up a plate with a message she wrote to federal officials regarding the sequestration.

Due to sequestration measures currently being implemented by the federal government, some Haywood County senior citizens may be receiving fewer hot meals each week.

Through its food service program, Mountain Projects Community Action Agency currently provides hot meals to an average of 50 to 60 local seniors each day. On weekdays, senior citizens visit one of three Mountain Projects locations in Canton, Maggie Valley and Waynesville to enjoy company and a nutritious meal.

However, the sequestration that came into effect March 1 is withdrawing about $1.54 million in funding from North Carolina programs that provide nutrition assistance for seniors.

The sequestration is a series of automatic budget cuts intended to reduce the country’s financial deficit. The massive cuts are estimated to slash $85 billion in spending through September.

Mountain Projects is a community based nonprofit organization that provides services to the elderly, disadvantaged and general public in Western North Carolina.

The food service program, which expanded to Haywood County in the 1990s, currently has a staff of five employees and operates five delivery vehicles. The program produces 1,000 meals each day, which are delivered to 51 sites located in Haywood, Jackson, Swain, Clay and Cherokee counties.

It began with a $52,000 Office of Economic Opportunity grant and a summer Head Start program. Since then, the agency has grown to an annual budget of $9 million, a 140-member staff, and provides a variety of services to the community.

But with continued federal cuts, Executive Director Patsy Dowling said she was expecting even less funding for Mountain Projects for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.

“Last year we lost 2.5 percent of our money, and next year we’re expecting a loss of 2.5 for a total of 5 percent,” Dowling said. “That’s estimated because we don’t have the final budget numbers yet.”

Dowling said the cuts already had affected the budget.

“This year we are over budget because we lost $2,000 a month ago due to sequestration,” Dowling said. “Next year if we continue to lose money, we’ll have to look at some type of reduction services.”

Dowling said a reduced budget could force Mountain Projects to only provide meals four days a week.

Darlene McElrath, supervisor of senior services at the Haywood County Senior Resource Center, said fewer meals would disappoint a lot of seniors depending on food and friendship.

“I don’t know what we’ll have to do,” McElrath said. “Maybe plan more outings so (the seniors) have to purchase their own lunches. But they will be disappointed; they look forward to coming. It’s their home away from home.”

Even though McElrath didn’t know how much federal funding to expect, she said the cuts would affect the seniors more than anyone.

“I know it’s going to be less because of the sequestration,” McElrath said. “I just don’t know how much. The seniors are all on fixed incomes. We just ask them for donations and that helps them with their food budget quite a lot. For a lot of them, we provide their only hot meal of the day.”

McElrath, who also oversees nutrition at the center, said providing hot meals to seniors helped them stay healthy.

“A lot of these people aren’t able to cook a full meal,” McElrath said. “This way, we know they’re getting one good meal each day of the week. I think it would be a terrible thing to have to go to only four days a week. A lot of them would be eating a cheese sandwich on that fifth day.”

McElrath said a lot of the seniors had shown concern about the budget cuts.

“They’re really sad,” she said. “They’re afraid they’re going to have to give up part of their week if there’s not enough money to pay food and staff. We just don’t have the choice. … There are a lot more lonely people who need company and need things to do.”

Several seniors wrote messages on paper plates such as “Don’t empty my plate” or “Stop the sequester” and took photos to be sent to federal officials.

Dowling said she hoped the photos would help show the impact of the sequestration. She said the company already was seeking financial assistance to help counter the cuts. She said she expected to know more about the budget after the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

“We’ve requested a United Way help supplement,” Dowling said. “We’re going to continue to seek donations to keep operating.”

To contribute to Mountain Projects, visit www.mountainprojects.org to view sponsorship opportunities.

Donations also are accepted. Checks made out to Mountain Projects can be brought to the Senior Resource Center located at 81 Elmwood Way in Waynesville.

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