East Cooper Meals on Wheels volunteers prepare food for residents in need (237064)
Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

WASHINGTON—Charles Abel, a 65-year-old man living in Baltimore, is among the millions of Americans who rely on Meals on Wheels, a program that President Trump plans to cut dramatically under his budget proposal.

At a March news conference, White House Budget Chief Mick Mulvaney said, “Meals on Wheels sounds great.” But he claimed the program doesn’t provide a real service.

He added, “We’re not going to spend [money] on programs that cannot show that they actually deliver the promises that we’ve made to people.”

Abel, a cab driver for 27 years who now struggles with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, begs to differ.

“If it wasn’t for Meals on Wheels, I’d be a lot skinnier,” he said. “If I was left without them, I would not be eating as healthy as I am. I’d be surviving on sandwiches and McDonald’s.”

And it’s not just the meals.

“Sometimes the Meals on Wheels people are the only people I talk to in a day, and they’re nice people,” Abel said. “One of the guys is a serious Beatles fan. So, whenever he finds new songs, he burns me a CD.”

Meals on Wheels delivers food to seniors and individuals with disabilities who cannot go to the store to purchase their own food. Approximately 2.4 million people receive meals from 5,000 locations nationwide, according to Jenny Bertolette, vice president of communications at Meals on Wheels America.

Under Trump’s proposed budget to Congress, services that are funded by the Community Development Block Grant program could get cut, including Meals on Wheels. Trump’s budget eliminates Community Service Block Grants, approximately $13 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Local branches of Meals on Wheels depend heavily on federal funding.

“In Alabama, Meals on Wheels is a lifeline for thousands of low-income seniors, veterans and the disabled,” Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) said in an email. “Cutting funding for this program means condemning those in need to a life of hunger and isolation.”

More than 42,000 seniors in Alabama rely on Meals on Wheels and 90 percent of recipients in Alabama say the service makes them feel safe and secure, according to a Meals on Wheels report.

One of the oldest and largest programs is Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland, which serves an area that includes Baltimore, Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County, Howard County, Carroll County and parts of Montgomery County, its officials said. It receives 56 percent of its budget from the federal government.

“We serve about 1,500 clients daily,” said Guy Arceneaux, senior director of marketing and communications at Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland. “Every $8 taken from our budget is a meal for a senior that will never be served.”

Approximately 27 percent of clients of Meals on Wheels Central Maryland are African-American, according to Arceneaux.

The Maryland budget for Meals on Wheels is $8.5 million, he said. If the federal government halts funding, the program would lose nearly $5 million.

“Consequently, the program will have to reduce the number of people it serves,” he said.

“That means going from delivering meals five days a week to three, or two meals a day to one. Programs already can’t keep up with demands. So, they’ll have to add seniors to waiting lists or in the worst case scenario, they would have to turn seniors away and people relying on the service now would not be able to get it anymore.”

Retired nurse Dorcell Walker, 65, is a Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland client. Walker has Parkinson’s disease and lives alone in Baltimore, where she’s resided for more than three decades.

Walker uses a wheelchair, which she said makes it difficult for her to move around the kitchen.

“Parkinson’s is debilitating and crippling, and it’s hard to hold a pot, because I shake and I’m weak,” she said. “It’s dangerous for me. Meals on Wheels delivers hot and cold meals in a container that’s lightweight enough for me to handle. Meals on Wheels is a godsend to me.”

Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland provides other services, including safety and wellness checks, companion visitors, grocery shopping assistance, home repairs and pet food delivery.

John McDuffle, 67, has lived in Baltimore for 40 years. His late wife received Meals on Wheels and now he’s enrolled in the program.

“They really help me so I don’t have to go outside if it’s cold or snowy, or too dark,” he said. “The volunteers respect me, and they always come when they say they’re going to.”

Bertolette said Meals on Wheels needs bipartisan support.

“Both sides need to do their part to make sure these seniors aren’t forgotten,” she said.