Some seniors upset over meals site change

MANCHESTER — Meals on Wheels of Bennington County is fielding some criticism over its decision to stop serving lunches at Town Hall and invite seniors to attend meals in Arlington instead.

Executive Director Ilsa Svoboda, who announced the decision last week, was confronted Tuesday by several seniors at the Manchester site, who sharply questioned the need to discontinue the service and the reasoning provided by Svoboda — that attendance was not high enough to justify the lease and other expenses.

She had said in announcing the change that an average of two seniors were served meals on Tuesdays and six on Thursdays, the two days per week when meals are served at the location. Meals on Wheels also delivers meals to homes, and that service will continue as an option for Manchester seniors.

On Tuesday afternoon, the last day for meals at the Manchester Town Hall, Svoboda was questioned about the attendance figures she had mentioned.

"That was done by an average of the entire year," she said. "I was here on Thursday, and we were only servicing one person; there were two volunteers."

"One person is very unusual," said a woman who walked out of the session. "When I read in the paper that there are only two people that's a lie."

Svoboda said she was speaking of average attendance over a year, but those averages also were questioned by seniors on Tuesday.

The executive director said in a telephone interview afterward, however, that an average of about 20 seniors per meal is the minimum needed to justify the expenses in terms of providing the best possible program for seniors across Bennington County.

"We haven't hit 20 in a very long time," she said, adding that there has been a slow decline in average attendance over time. The site has been used by Meals on Wheels for about six years, she said.

Between meals served in Bennington, Arlington and other sites, and those delivered to seniors at home, the program serves from 200 to 250 clients per meal.

Meals on Wheels has been paying $2,100 per year to lease the Manchester space. Town Manager John O'Keefe said in an email Tuesday that the $175 per month lease, which was offered at below market rates, included "all utilities (electric, heat, water, septic, and hot water but not cooking propane) and other costs that are normally included in commercial leases, like parking lot snowplowing, etc. It includes exclusive use of the kitchen, some of the outdoor area and non-exclusive use of the larger Kilburn Room."

Svoboda said she will explore the possible use of space at the recreation center in Manchester, although that would not be available year-round and would also require adequate attendance to justify the expense of transporting the meals from the Bennington kitchen, where they are prepared, to the site.

And she also will look into a suggestion made Tuesday to contact Green Mountain Express to learn if bus services can be arranged from Manchester to the Arlington meals site — Bailey Hall on Ice Pond Road.

The organization also would re-evaluate the situation if enough seniors begin attending the Arlington lunches to consider opening a new site elsewhere, she said, or if the level of funding for Meals on Wheels increases.

She urged Manchester seniors to attend a noontime lunch at the Arlington site, which she said is well-attended and "a very welcoming site. It has a great atmosphere ... I can tell you, when they walk in, it's one big party."

The director said she understands the frustration that comes with this type of change and wants to hear the concerns of seniors and try to provide answers. But she said "there is a financial reason behind it that they don't realize," referring a need to consider the organization's overall budget.

Responding to complaints that meals delivered to the homes of seniors do not provide socialization opportunities, Svoboda said that also is a top goal of Meals on Wheels, along with providing nutrition for seniors.

Manchester Journal Editor Cherise Madigan contributed to this report.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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