Congresswoman concerned about Meals on Wheels cuts

by: MARK MILLER - Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., speaks to senior citizens at the St. Helens Senior Center about the effects of federal spending cuts on senior programs.Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, Democratic congresswoman for Columbia County and the rest of Oregon’s 1st congressional district, criticized cuts to government assistance for senior citizens in a meeting with constituents at the St. Helens Senior Center on Monday, July 15.

Speaking to about 20 seniors during the lunch hour, Bonamici warned that the effects of the across-the-board federal spending cuts known collectively as sequestration, which took effect March 1, could soon be felt by Columbia County residents served by the Meals on Wheels program.

“The cuts keep adding up,” Bonamici said in response to a question from Cheryl Young, the senior center’s manager and mayor of Columbia City.

“We were approaching the date [sequestration] was going to go into effect, everybody thought we were immediately going to see something happen,” Bonamici continued. “But it wasn’t like all the sudden on one day we’re going to feel the effect of the cuts. It’s more gradual. Now we’re starting to feel them. Unless we make changes, we’re going to continue to feel them.”

Jim Tierney, executive director of the Community Action Team — the agency that coordinates Meals on Wheels programs between senior centers in Columbia County — said as many as 7,000 meals for up to 40 households could be lost to the cuts. In fact, officials at senior centers in Clatskanie and Vernonia have indicated they may not continue with the Meals on Wheels program because of the reduced federal assistance, Tierney said.

He said senior programs in those communities were already struggling due to what he described as “economies of scale.”

“It’s hard enough to work out here, and ... the numbers just are really challenging,” Tierney said. Each senior center receives about $600 from the Community Action Team to pay for staff expenses, down from $1,100 in the mid-2000s, he explained.

Of the sequestration cuts, Tierney remarked, “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

St. Helens Senior Center officials, along with their counterparts in Scappoose and Rainier, have indicated the center will continue on with the program, Tierney said. He said one solution may be for them to begin serving needy residents in the more rural areas of the county.

“We’re in the middle of trying to work through kind of a crisis here with the senior programs because of these cuts, and we’re not done trying to be creative and figure out how we can keep the wheels on this stuff,” said Tierney.

Bonamici, who volunteered with Meals on Wheels during her time in the Oregon State Legislature, said after the meeting that she worries about isolated seniors in remote areas.

“Sometimes the only person that a senior sees that day is the person delivering a meal,” said Bonamici, adding, “It’s a combination of, you know, they need the nutrition and they have that human contact that’s really important.”

Bonamici told seniors at the meeting that she remains opposed to proposed Social Security cuts, calling the program “an earned benefit” for seniors.

She also criticized House leadership’s decision to pass a farm bill without language to extend funding for the food stamp program and said she hopes to see a bipartisan effort to address it.

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