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June 19, 2013

Local seniors feel the effects of sequestration

Levin visits rec center to hear their stories

By Sara Kandel
C & G Staff Writer

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U.S. Rep. Sander Levin speaks with seniors at the Roseville Recreation Center June 1 during his sequester impact tour.

ROSEVILLE — U.S. Rep. Sander Levin spoke with seniors at the Roseville Recreation Center about cuts to county meal programs at his first stop in a daylong sequestration impact tour June 7.

Although other groups have been or will be affected — in Warren, St. John Macomb-Oakland Hospital will lay off 160 employees, and at TACOM Life Cycle Management Command, employees will have to take an unspecified number of furlough days — local seniors were among the first to feel the effects of the gridlock in Washington, D.C.

Macomb County was forced to make cuts to its Senior Nutrition Program on which more than 3,000 local seniors rely. About two-dozen of those seniors, along with representatives from the program, gathered in the recreation center’s senior activities room for a chance to share their stories with Levin.

“What we did some months ago (in Washington) is set up what is called a ‘sequester,’ and with that, if we don’t take action, (it) brings about cuts to certain programs, and one of the programs affected by that relates to food and nutrition for seniors,” Levin said.

Macomb County administers Meals on Wheels and congregate meals programs, such as Dining Senior Style, but both are federally funded and the automatic budget cuts brought a 25 percent cut in funding. With the cuts taking effect halfway through the fiscal year, Senior Citizen Nutrition Program Director Katherine Benford likened the effect to double that.

“There was $400,000 available to do congregate meals across the county all year long, but by the time the sequestration took effect, we had already spent half of it because we were halfway through the year,” Benford said. “So we were planning on having the other $200,000 available.

“Our cut was over $111,000. It was truly over 50 percent of the monies we had available for the next months to serve meals, so with a cut that severe, we had to make severe cuts to the availability of meals across the county.”

As a result, the cold-dinner program for needy seniors was discontinued and Dining Senior Style lunches were cut from five days a week to four days a week at all 22 Macomb County sites.

“It’s been really sad for a lot of people,” said 66-year-old JoAnne Murray, a Clinton Township senior who advises the county about senior issues. “You don’t see your friends and you don’t have that social interaction anymore on Fridays.”

But it’s more than the loss of social time that is hurting Murray and other seniors like her — it’s the loss of a guaranteed nutritious meal.

“I have diabetes and what I liked most about (the meals) was they were really well-prepared and they were very good — it was good, healthy food,” Murray said. “I only get $30 a week in food stamps and it made up for the difference.”

“With the meals program, we are talking about reducing 40 meals per month, per person, to 16 meals per month, per person. That’s a dramatic change,” said Tom Zaremba, a Center Line senior and member of the program’s senior advisory board, referring to the cut in meals for seniors who attend the lunches and receive the brown-bag cold dinners.

Program Coordinator Nicole Urban, who was not at the Levin event, later said that the discontinued cold dinners had been served to seniors at the four Macomb County sites with the highest rates of poverty — Center Line Park Towers, Elizabeth Lee Doles Manor in Clinton Township, Clinton Place Apartments and the Village Road Community Center in Clinton Township.

“At the sites where we had 70-80 percent of seniors living in poverty, we were doing the cold-dinner program there for those seniors,” Urban explained.

With an expected increase in costs, program administrators say it is likely the program cuts will carry through next year.

“We are hoping to increase the number of Meals on Wheels participants next year, but it’s looking like we will see rising costs in food and transportation, and with the cuts, it will prevent us from returning the Friday lunches and cold dinners,” Urban said.

“I don’t know what we’ll do, but we’ll get through,” Murray said. “One guy came in and his uncle owns a store and he sent a bunch of week-old baked goods to us. They were a week old, but they tasted good and we appreciated it so much. For some seniors, those baked goods might have been all they had to eat that night.”

Levin will share the information collected on the sequester impact tour with fellow lawmakers over the coming weeks.

To volunteer, donate or get information on the nutrition program, call (586) 469-5228.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Sara Kandel at skandel@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1030.