Senior centers face concerns on Meals on Wheels funding

By L. Parsons

Senior citizen centers in Holbrook and Winslow suffered a blow recently when they were denied funding for their Meals on Wheels programs, which provide lunches for elderly individuals in their homes and, as a result, also provide welfare checks for those individuals who are living on their own. The funding also includes congregate meals programs for seniors who come to the centers for lunch. While another funding source will step in to ensure meals are provided, the process will see some changes as a result of the new funding.

The announcement was made in April that the Northern Arizona Council of Governments (NACOG) would not be renewing those contracts, and that Snowflake’s Silver Creek Senior Center was placed on a provisional funding program while the organization strives to meet compliance standards.

Funding for Meals on Wheels and congregate meal services is awarded every four years based upon request for proposal (RFP) packets submitted by each director before the start of the fiscal year. Included in the RFPs are questions concerning organization, health and safety issues, nutritional concerns and demographic breakdowns. NACOG then evaluates each RFP based on the answers to these inquiries and awards points. Navajo County receives a total of $82,025 for congregate meals and $102,168 for home delivered meals.

Both congregate and home delivered meals programs are scored based on quality assurance, background checks for volunteers, financial organization and transparency, history of the program, operational capacity, proposed service, client management and the home delivered meals scope of work as defined by the Department of Economic Security.

The maximum number of points awarded is 100. Programs that score below 56 points are not awarded funding for the four-year cycle. Programs between 56-70 points are placed on provisional funding, and are required to meet compliance benchmarks at three and six month intervals. According to NACOG Area Agency on Aging Director Mary Beals-Luedtka, organizations placed on probation like the one in Snowflake are on track to meet criteria. But Beals-Luedtka added that both Winslow and Holbrook scored in the 40s, so funding contracts have not been renewed for this cycle.

In reference to Winslow, Beals-Luedtka expressed frustration, saying, “Winslow has been difficult to work with, and has been out of compliance off and on for two years.” NACOG is dedicated to feeding the population, but as Beals-Luedtka explained, “If you want to take federal money, you have to follow the rules.”

During a Holbrook City Council work session in May it was announced that the Holbrook Senior Center was denied funding, but the only reference as to why was that Director Carla Gabaldon had experienced an illness and that although the RFP had been submitted, it was implied that her illness may have been a factor in the center not meeting the RFP requirements established for the funds.

The Holbrook Senior Center provides 298 meals each month and has served 371 meals so far this year that were beyond what NACOG funds.

According to Beals-Luedtka, when programs are out of compliance, they are given a reasonable amount of time to correct the issues in direct relation to the issue. For example, Beals-Luedtka said, “If its a health and safety issue, we will work with them for, say, three months,” with the intention of bringing the program to a standard required by federal and state regulations.

“The criteria for successful compliance is clearly outlined,” said Beals-Luedtka. She went on to explain that if there are questions or concerns with what is expected of each program, NACOG representatives are available to answer them. Beals-Luedtke cited the many services offered by her office to each facility providing meals for vulnerable populations.

“We make sure that not only is the criteria published, but we also provide ongoing training, constantly updating directors on law and standard changes. We are in constant contact. Any help needed is available at any time, we have a toll free phone number, I give out my personal phone number and am available by e-mail. We offer online and in person training. There is no excuse for incomplete or out of compliance RFPs,” she said.

Chris Wall, who is the director of the Silver Creek Senior Center, disagreed that that the criteria was clear and expressed frustration in the RFP process, saying the website was “convoluted” and that it was the “strangest process” for a funding request.

“We were told we would receive our funding, but that we were placed on probation until December, but haven’t been told how to get off of probation or what we even did to be on it. Why, if we’ve been doing this a number of years and passed all of our audits, are we suddenly on probation?” she asked.

Silver Creek Senior Center, like the centers in Holbrook and Winslow, operates with minimal staff. In Wall’s operation she has a cook and with two assistants who help in the kitchen, meaning that her time is limited in an operation that serves hundreds of meals each month and provides additional services for the most vulnerable citizens in the county.

According to Wall, they served 417 Meals on Wheels last month, with only 363 of those paid for by NACOG. The congregate meals amounted to more than 500. “The RFP asks us to report our efforts to request donations from the community to offset costs, but we don’t have the donor base that exists in other areas or the staff to do this. As part of the grading system I think there is an unfair advantage for those areas that have a broader economic base. Being in a rural area is like comparing a kumquat to a watermelon, both are fruit, but vastly different,” she explained.

Wall said she felt the RFP had a great deal of duplicity and failed to allow for a narrative so that an explanation of circumstance could be provided to go with the fill-in-the blank questions. “It’s just been a very frustrating process,” she said.

When asked about the funding cuts, Winslow Council on Aging Director Monica Hernandez said, “I feel the board didn’t do enough to keep these programs going, like find alternative funding.”

In response to that statement, Marshall Losey, who serves chairman of the center’s board, said, “Essentially, NACOG’s decision comes down to the paperwork, filling out of forms. An appeal was filed and also denied.”

Seniors who both take advantage of services provided and are volunteers expressed the need for continued meals, but were also concerned by the process. Volunteer Pat Egan said, “NACOG didn’t award the contract based on how we answered the RFP questions instead of what we are doing,” meaning, she believed the decision should have been based more on the need for and the performance of the programs.

According to Director Beals-Luedkta, those were actually factors, and Winslow and Holbrook facilities fell short. She stated, “The most important thing is we want to make sure everyone knows that we have to follow state and federal regulations, and we want to make sure everyone is served.” She also noted that NACOG is an organization tasked with distributing funds to help fill gaps in communities. When those communities fail to perform, or in this case, fail to adequately complete their RFP, their contracts are not renewed.

Meals on Wheels provides home delivered meals to 35 to 40 clients per day in Winslow and approximately 40 congregate meals are served. The program offers nutritionally sound, fresh, hot meals at little or no cost to the client. Volunteers are heavily vetted, and must pass background checks, and be certified in CPR and basic first aid to be allowed to deliver meals.

The program also provides interaction and welfare checks on a daily basis to a very vulnerable population. Many community members are concerned for the continuation of these welfare checks. “We would like to continue welfare checks, even in the form of a daily phone call,” Losey said.

Beals-Luedkta agreed that the intrapersonal interaction is an important part of the services provided, saying, “We have reassurance programs in place which will include phone calls to clients. In the event clients don’t answer, there is an emergency back up plan.”

She went on to explain the replacement provider Mom’s Meals as having an exclusive contract with Fed Ex that requires delivery drivers to take meal deliveries into the homes of clients as an additional layer of checking in. Both Holbrook and Winslow NACOG clients will be receiving home delivered meals from Mom’s Meals.

The company ships two weeks worth of meals to those who need them in coolers through Fed Ex. The meals meet nutritional standards and are offered by menu every two weeks. Mom’s Meals also provides its own check-in plan, and will call clients to retrieve their menu selections and ask general well being questions.

As far as congregate meals are concerned, NACOG notes that it is “going to work with each community to make sure people are fed. We are looking into alternate sites for congregate meals.”

Beals-Luedtka added, “The community is the brick and mortar of these programs. NACOG cannot and should not be the only source of funding for a senior center.”