A new university survey illustrates the real-life impact of state and federal program funding cuts on some of Lake County’s most vulnerable citizens: low-income seniors.

Federal nutrition program funding decreases to Northwest Indiana’s Meals on Wheels program have harmed beneficiaries of that service, according to the survey conducted by Indiana University Northwest.

More than one-third of respondents in the March survey conducted of Meals on Wheels clients whose meals were reduced reported losing weight after the cuts and one-quarter claimed to be “food insecure,” fearful of running out of food or going hungry.

“This is a bad situation,” said Sam Flint, IUN’s associate director of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the class instructor who supervised the study with 22 of his students and graduate students Fred Buckley and Erica Fizer. Flint said the rate of food insecurity among the survey respondents was four times greater than state and national averages for seniors.

Some of the 283 seniors had their meal deliveries reduced from five days per week to three, while others saw their cold supper snacks eliminated or agreed to pay for the meals. The seniors ranged in age from 65 to 98, but averaged around 80 years old.

What disturbs Flint most is what he called “the stupidity and insensitivity. If you don’t have a heart, how about a head? This is no way to treat our parents and grandparents,” said Flint.

He said the link between poor nutrition and higher rates of senior hospitalizations and nursing home admissions is well documented.

“The weekly cost of Meals on Wheels for one person is $29.50 and the average weekly cost for a nursing home bed is $1,067. They’re pushing the frail and elderly over the line to save a few pennies a day and that in turn will blow up Medicaid costs for hospitals and nursing homes. If they cut money here, it will bite them back,” he said.

Those funding cuts first struck in October 2010, followed by a second round in January 2011. He said those cuts are only the tip of the iceberg of what promises to be larger service reductions.

Most clients are poor

The survey revealed that only 7% of the seniors affected lived in households making more than $26,000 and more than half lived in homes with less than $13,000 in annual income. Ninety-five of the 283 beneficiaries completed the surveys (34%). A nearly equal number were white and black and about were 10% Asian and Hispanic.

Tula Gogolak, spokesman for Meals on Wheels of Northwest Indiana, said the not-for-profit agency delivers more than 1,600 meals Monday-Friday to Lake County residents, around 3,000 citizens in 2010 alone. Last year, Gogolak said, its volunteers delivered more than 415,000 meals to clients and have delivered more than 5 million since 1977. Last year more than 850 volunteers delivered meals. Meals on Wheels prepares and delivers therapeutic meals based on care plans to help individuals manage their diets and health concerns.

“As a nonprofit, we strive to have the human and financial resources to answer the call and to feed those in need,” said Meals on Wheels Northwest Indiana Executive Director Sandra Noe, who added her clients depend upon the meals to survive. “Until many of these issues are settled and current economic conditions change, our clients need our help. We rely on the generous support from our community so we may offer and provide the meal service our clients and their families have come to expect from Meals on Wheels.”

Gary Olund is president and chief executive officer of Northwest Indiana Community Action Corp., the locally designated agency on aging that distributes money to Meals on Wheels and other vendors in six counties throughout Northwest Indiana. Olund’s agency absorbed a 10% funding cuts from the federal government and had to trim assistance to those Meals on Wheels beneficiaries. Olund applauded the IUN survey.

“The findings are absolutely on the money and speaks to what happens when big picture budget cuts are made,” he said. “We’re supportive of efforts to put a face on what is actually happening when these cuts are made in Washington, D.C., or Indianapolis because it affects people’s lives.”

Janelle Zelkowski, support services supervisor for the Visiting Nurse Association of Porter County, said its Meals on Wheels program suffered similar cuts.

“Some of our clients opted to pay for their food,” she said, pointing out that Porter County’s Meals on Wheels program has a higher percentage of private pay clients than Lake County. Zelkowski said 45 of the program’s roughly 170 clients are on subsidies. “Some family members agreed to help as well.”

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