Jefferson Council on Aging cutting back on meals to seniors

Nearly 20 percent of meals the Jefferson Council on Aging delivers to senior citizens in the parish could be phased out to deal with a sharp drop in private contributions, officials said Wednesday.

The cut means 200 fewer slots will be available in the program, which now serves about 1,050 people a day, even as officials already have to put new applicants on a waiting list that now contains almost 160 names.

Officials are working on a long-term solution to the issue, which could include expanding millages that pay for senior services or more aggressively going after donations, Council on Aging Executive Director Al Robichaux said.

But in the meantime, that will mean longer waits.

The Meals on Wheels program was averaging about $200,000 in donations two years ago, including voluntary payments by the senior citizens who rely on the service.

But donations have plummeted, with the council bringing in only half that amount this year, said Frank Forte, who handles the council’s finances. Poor economic conditions likely contributed to that decline, he said.

The council does not plan to kick any needy seniors off the program, but has been reassessing those who use it to make sure they still need its assistance, Robichaux said.

The drop-off in donations is only one element putting financial strain on the program. To contain costs, the councils in Jefferson, Orleans and East Baton Rouge parishes had banded together to lower rates from the contractor who prepares the meals. But the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging recently left that agreement, which means higher costs for the other two groups.

The council is pursuing a variety of tactics to bolster the program’s finances, including finding a new vendor, convincing supermarkets to allow their customers to make donations at check-out and holding fundraisers to bring in new money, Robichaux said.

Councilman Paul Johnston also suggested a property tax in unincorporated areas of the parish that helps fund senior services could be expanded to include cities to bring in additional funds.

During Wednesday’s meeting, council members questioned whether cutting Meals on Wheels was necessary. They suggested money from other programs, such as the 11 senior centers the council runs, should be diverted to feeding those in need.

“I think its important to provide fun activities for seniors and playing bingo is nice and in a perfect world we’d have the ability to do all those things,” Council Chairman Chris Roberts said.

“But there is no fundamental need greater than feeding people,” he said.

Robichaux said much of the money the council receives is dedicated to the centers themselves and off-limits for other programs. He also said the COA is already running a lean operation. He said the agency has reduced its number of employees in recent years, doesn’t offer retirement benefits, and restricts paid travel by workers.

As the population of Jefferson Parish continues to skew toward older residents, Roberts said, the parish government must come up with a way to make sure services are available.

“I don’t believe the number of people you all are serving with Meals on Wheels is going to go down in the future,” Roberts said. “ I believe its going to go up and we have to plan for that.”