Skip to Navigation Skip to Main Content
Tomas Gonzalez/DRC

Local Meals on Wheels volunteers worried about proposed cuts

Controversy over proposed federal budget cuts includes a program with a more local impact whose future could be in jeopardy.

About 1,000 seniors in Denton County receive hot meals each year through Span Inc., a local nonprofit agency that serves seniors and people with disabilities. The budget proposal set forth by President Donald Trump's administration, which asks Congress to cut nearly $3 billion in funding to Community Development Block Grants, could affect that.

"It is an impactful, important program," said longtime volunteer and meal courier Yvonne Poppe of Denton. "I was disheartened when I heard funding might be cut."

Known colloquially as "Meals on Wheels," in the 2016 fiscal year the operation was responsible for 103,000 meal deliveries, according to Span Inc. senior nutrition program manager Kristine Herrera.

Meals on Wheels programs serve seniors around the country. The program is not an official federal initiative, so funding for each local program varies in source and dispersal. Some local programs rely entirely on private donations; others receive a majority of their funding from the federal government.

"We will still be able to operate," Herrera said about the outlook for the Denton County operation. "We might have to reduce the number of meals. But we get the majority of our funding from the Older Americans Act."

Passed in 1965, the Older Americans Act and its Nutrition Programs provide the majority of federal funding for Meals on Wheels programs nationwide. It's run by the Department of Human Health and Services, whose funding the budget proposal would cut by nearly 18 percent. Federal funds can subsidize up to 35 percent of a local agency's Meals on Wheels budget.

For some Meals on Wheels clients, the delivery might be the only nutritious meal they've had all day, as well as the only human contact for seniors who are without a spouse or nearby relatives,  Poppe said. She and her husband, Fitz, have been involved with Meals on Wheels for at least 20 years.

 "The last car I purchased was a Ford C-Max," Fitz Poppe said. "It's a hybrid with better gas mileage than I was getting. I got it with [Meals on Wheels] and our daily routes in mind specifically."

The Poppes, who are both retired, speak affectionately about the program and say they will volunteer as long as they are able.

"You form a friendship with [the clients]," Yvonne Poppe said. "They know us by name, and we get to know them very well. It's vital for a lot of people's well-being."

The federal grants being placed on the White House's chopping block are extended to communities to combat poverty. Because the funds are allocated locally, and there is no known record of which state and city programs rely heavily on the grants, the scope of the proposed budget cuts' impact on Meals on Wheels is not presently known. Currently, about 2.4 million seniors receive hot meals through Meals on Wheels programs each year.

"You deliver the meals, you visit with the clients, and you make sure they are up and about," said another volunteer, retired pilot Frank Bunch. "They are always looking for volunteers — some stay a long time, some don't. But it is most certainly a worthwhile program."

Herrera, who has been involved with Span Inc. for eight years, said the initiative to cut block grants is not "evidence-based" and that programs such as Meals on Wheels have a deep impact on communities.

"It keeps seniors in their own home," she said. "Though we aren't as big as Dallas, we still serve about [8,000] to 9,000 meals a month."

The budget proposal outlined by the Trump administration would need 60 votes in the Senate to pass — including eight votes from Democrats, or more if any Republicans refuse to comply. Dubbed "America First," the budget would bolster defense spending by $54 billion while cutting the same amount to non-defense programs such as the Community Development Block Grants program. 

"I just don't know how their conscience will let them do it," Yvonne Poppe said. "Really, I'm at a loss for words. It is too important to let it fall by the wayside." 

HARRISON LONG can be reached at 940-566-6897.