Broward County

Budget cuts take a bite out of Broward Meals on Wheels

Leonard Dapolito awaits the Thursday delivery of a week’s worth of frozen meals like a child staying up for Christmas. Tethered to an oxygen tank, with a walker at arm’s reach, Dapolito, 96, considers his Meals on Wheels a much-needed blessing.

What would it mean if he lost this service? “That’s a good question,” says Dapolito, of Cooper City. “It’s not like I can go out and drive or cook. Without them I’d be stuck.”

So would Joe and Evelyn Capodici, 72 and 66 respectively. Joe doesn’t drive and Evelyn is wheelchair bound, unable to move her legs or arms.

“We’re not going to be cut, are we?” Joe asks a Meals on Wheels volunteer when she brings in a box of food. Desperation marks his voice. “Tell me we’re not.”

Dapolito and Capodici won’t lose their beloved Meals on Wheels. They and other Broward seniors who currently receive the free meals are safe for now. But as a result of sequestration — the $85 billion in automatic cuts to the federal budget that went into effect March 1 when Congress and the White House failed to reach a compromise — other frail and homebound seniors have been put on a waiting list. This is the first time in two decades that a waiting period has been instituted for a program that serves 1,300 seniors.

Broward Meals on Wheels lost about 8 percent of its budget because of the sequester, a total of $527,000. The non-profit had expected to lose about $320,000, enough for 64,000 meals, and staff planned for the hit when it became obvious the sequester was inevitable.

“We didn’t fill vacant positions, we let go of all consulting positions and cut out every line item we could,” said executive director Mark Adler.

That, coupled with an effort to move some Meals on Wheels clients to other services, appeared to mitigate some of the damage. But then the agency took another 3 percent hit, or about $207,000. Now the staff has to find that amount between now and the end of the year just to continue serving its current clients.

Already strategizing to raise funds in novel ways, Broward Meals on Wheels is encouraging residents to sponsor a senior for $5 a day, the cost of two meals.

That, however, won’t help the dozens of seniors who need the service but can’t get it. “The need for homebound meals has outstripped our ability to meet the demand,” Adler adds. “We’ve been forced to become hunger gatekeepers. It’s a horrible, horrible place to be.”

Earlier in the week Adler received a call from a desperate woman who, until she began cancer treatment, was caring for her elderly parents, both of whom have dementia. She needed home delivered meals but could not afford to pay for someone to cook for her family. “It’s heartbreaking to have to turn people down,” Adler says.

Not all Meals on Wheels have been so affected. Alberto Tarjus, assistant director of Community Action and Human Services Department, says the Miami Dade program suffered a loss of somewhere between $7,000 to $9,000 from its budget because of the sequester cuts. The agency has made up the shortfall through attrition and keeping staff positions open longer. The difference between the two programs has to do with their source of funding.

Miami-Dade Meals on Wheels receives most of its money from the county’s general fund. But in Broward, about 65 percent of the Meals on Wheels’ $2.5 million budget comes from through the federal Older Americans Act. The OAA provides money for a variety of senior needs, from van rides and at-home care services to senior center lunches and home-delivered meals.

Though the Broward agency does have other funding options, namely programs available at a cost to members who are no longer homebound or can afford to pay a minimal fee for services, Adler expects next year to be worse.

“2014 is going to be scary,” he says. “The senior population is growing and people are living longer with chronic illnesses, so this problem isn’t going away.”

Launched in 1985, Broward Meals on Wheels depends on an army of about 600 volunteers who fan out through the county to make the weekly deliveries. Dapolito and Capodici are on the Southwest Ranches route of Joe and Claire Loftus, who make seven stops and deliver meals to nine clients every Thursday.

“These people are so grateful,” says Joe, 82. “They welcome us every time we come.”

Claire, 79, says that dropping off what is sometimes the only nutrition these seniors receive has been a life-changing experience. “When we see some of these clients, I realize we are very, very lucky,” she says. “I’m glad we can help people because you never know when you’re going to be on the other end. You never know what life is going to bring you.”