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BRATTLEBORO — Senior meal sites in Windham and Windsor counties are being asked to make cuts during a challenging time.

Senior Solutions, which distributes funding to providers of senior meal programs in the two counties, is cutting its contributions to the groups by 25 percent. Brattleboro Senior Meals received $214,640 for programs during the last fiscal year and is capped at $169,570 for the next fiscal year, which begins Saturday, creating a $45,070 shortfall for the local group.

Wendi Germain, director of nutrition and wellness at Senior Solutions, said reducing participants and starting a wait list are options for the group. She noted that anyone losing access to a program will be given support in the transition and help in finding another program.

Senior Solutions also has suggested meal providers look at their rosters to see if participants qualify, because eligibility for Meals on Wheels was opened more broadly to include anyone choosing to isolate during the COVID-19 pandemic, or consider cutting frozen meals given to seniors for weekends and holidays, and potentially remove a day of service out of the weekly schedule for Meals on Wheels.

“Because we identified the need in the area being more important than ever, we don’t want to do that,” said Cynthia Fisher, executive director of Brattleboro Senior Meals. She has found that the majority of participants who came on during the pandemic qualified beforehand.

Fisher said her group found out about the shortfall about six weeks ago and is scrambling to figure out how to make up for it. For now, an open position for assistant cook will go unfilled and fundraising efforts will be ramped up.

Federal Older American Act grant funding and state funds for Senior Solutions have increased only by $29,614 since 2018, Mark Boutwell, executive director of Senior Seniors, wrote in a memo to staff.

“Due in part to this, over the years we have continued to dip into our reserves to meet our operations costs,” he wrote. “These are long-term system issues that have caused our funds to be depleted. Like everyone else, this past year we have seen a lot of increases in costs.”

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Senior Solutions is “working with meal sites to reduce their meal counts and the associated costs,” Boutwell wrote. His group is reducing staff wage increases for next year from 3.5 to 2 percent, eliminating a part-time position in the agency and making one full-time position into a part-time position, according to the memo.

“We will need to work as a team to address the internal factors and most of all to ensure that our clients’ needs are addressed to the best of our ability,” Boutwell wrote. “While this situation presents us with some challenges, as is often the case, it also presents us with opportunities. It propels us to move ahead with looking deeper for efficiencies in our workflows and daily practices. We will be working on further developing our outreach and communications with the goal of reaching more older Vermonters in need.”

Creating more difficulties for the meal providers are increased prices for making the meals and purchasing consumable products, such as packaging for distribution.

“These costs are skyrocketing,” Fisher said, specifically food. “So our costs are over budget as it is for this fiscal year because of the economy and the rising costs of things. And other than the government dollars, we rely primarily on donations and fundraising to make up the shortfall.”

Her staff will be responsible for covering gaps associated with not having the assistant cook. If the cook is sick or on vacation, options for providing frozen meals and contracting with other meal providers will be explored.

Fisher said she will be asking for more funding from the towns her group serves and applying for more grants. She also will issue two fundraising appeals this year, instead of one, and look at different avenues for procuring food.

For the current fiscal year, her group will have served more than 40,000 meals via Meals on Wheels and nearly 3,000 congregant meals.

“There’s this whole section of people in need who are being forgotten,” Fisher said, noting how many area seniors are living on fixed incomes, experiencing higher costs of living, food insecure and dealing with the stigma of using assistance programs. “There’s more need than ever for our area seniors to continue this program.”

Fisher recommends concerned residents contact their legislators about the issue and consider donating to their local Meals on Wheels program. Germain said all the individual meal sites accept donations for Meals on Wheels.


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