Just days before the end of the August congressional recess, U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici spent part of her Tuesday visiting the Elsie Stuhr Center in Beaverton, then riding shotgun for a Meals on Wheels tour of the area, to meet seniors and to discuss their issues.
When the U.S. House of Representatives reconvenes in September, Bonamici said, the stories she gleans from these ride-alongs will help her fight for her primary issues: including services for seniors.
Bonamici represents Oregon's 1st Congressional District, which includes Washington County and portions of West Portland, along with Columbia, Clatsop and Yamhill counties. The Beaverton resident has her district headquarters in Beaverton.
While back home on recess, she spoke at the Westside Economic Alliance and visited a program at the Beaverton Library to provide children's books in a variety of languages other than English.
But she said the abbreviated Meals on Wheels drive is a "listening tour" for her. "These are the stories I take back to tell my colleagues," she said. "This is how I make the case."
One of the people she met on the tour was Larry Johnson, a graduate of Vernonia High school, a Vietnam vet and a retiree of the Bonneville Power Administration. Johnson sat outside his 1973 home — he moved in the year it was built — and waited for his Meals on Wheels driver, as he almost always does.
"She was at the Elsie Stuhr Center? I go there," Johnson said. "That's where I get my coffee."
But when he realized he had the congresswoman's ear, his thoughts turned more political. Johnson is no fan of foreign interventions and would rather see Congress spend money on domestic programs than on troubles abroad.
"Meals on Wheels does good for the community," Johnson said. "We spend too much worrying about 'the other guy' and not enough time worrying about our own. That's why I like this program."
Bonamici likes it, too: Meals on Wheels is largely funded through the Older Americans Act, which she helped to reauthorize through 2019. But the program also receives money from Community Development Block Grants.
President Trump's budget would eliminate the grants from within the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It's a $3 billion program started in the Ford administration to give states and cities flexibility in how they combat poverty. Across the nation, senior centers and Meals on Wheels programs are direct beneficiaries of the block grant program.
"It's basically a starvation diet," Bonamici said of the president's proposed budget. "Great programs are at risk. Community Development Block Grants is one of them, but there are others that are threatened, too."
Her driver for the day, Leta Winston, agrees. Winston, a Lake Oswegan and Nike retiree, has been a Meals on Wheels volunteer for 15 years. She said, when the president's first budget outline was released this winter, she was furious to hear that Meals on Wheels might be cut.
"It does so much good," she said.
Julia Piper Finley, director of marketing and communications for Meals on Wheels in Oregon, said the stats back that up. In 2016-17 fiscal year, the program provided more than 240,000 meals to more than 3,000 seniors in Washington County.
Bonamici has been a longtime advocate for the Older Americans Act, which supports Meals on Wheels and other senior service programs, and includes protections for elder-abuse laws, nutrition programs and the Family Caregiver Support Program. The reauthorization of the original 1965 OAA runs through 2019. Following the Great Recession, Republicans pushed through a set of austerity measures known as the Budget Control Act of 2011, which put almost all non-defense discretionary spending on the chopping block. That included the Older Americans Act, resulted in cuts to senior nutrition and other programs in 2013. President Obama began restoring that funding at the end of his time in the White House.