Meals Plus for Seniors program takes major hit

A regional program that provides meals to shut-ins and senior citizens is in danger of closing due to lack of funding.

Nearly 700 people in West Central Illinois receive Meals on Wheels. That's just a portion of the nearly 2,500 people that eat at meal sites scattered throughout the six counties served by the Meals Plus for Seniors program.

"When I started here, they had brunch on Sunday and a salad bar and they've just had to keep cutting back and cutting back," Gary Tournear said.

Tournear is one of many senior citizens that travel to the Quincy Senior Family and Resource Center every week. There, they can eat lunch and dinner for a small contribution as part of the Meals Plus for Seniors program.

"It's helped me financially because, being 60 years and older, you just put in what you can afford. I couldn't afford to come here if I were under 60," Tournear said.

To anyone else, the cost is 5 dollars, if only for another week or two. Beginning March 1, the program will cut back its services to its clients like Tournear.

Rising food costs, high fuel charges for delivery vehicles, late payments from the state of Illinois and reduced contributions from the elderly themselves have placed Meals Plus for Seniors in peril, program manager Bill Stehl said. The nutrition program will end its evening and weekend meals served at the Quincy Senior & Family Resource Center.

Evening meals are served from 5 p.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and the weekend are offered 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

"We want to get the word out to seniors to please contribute to the cost of that meal, however we don't want any senior who can't afford to donate to the meal to not eat because of that," Stehl said. "We want to make certain that hungry people are getting a well balanced meal, and for those who need the evening and weekend service, home delivered or frozen meals will be offered."

Hours have been reduced for many of the staff members of Meals Plus and some have even been laid off. Overall, 6 positions will be cut, the majority in Quincy. Another 10 to 15 people will see a reduction in hours, including kitchen and production staff.

"It's just one more step in helping to save the program," Stehl said.

The costs of the meals will rise from $5 to $6. A meal consists of an entrée, a starch, a vegetable, a dessert and a beverage.

"Raising the cost may not increase the income received but it more accurately reflects the production cost for the product being served," Stehl added.

Tournear heard about the potential cuts a while back and has since made changes to his daily routine.

"I've been cutting back on certain things too, even at home. So now instead of coming for both lunch and supper, I've cut back to just the lunches. So I just eat what I have at home. That isn't very much. They're not going to be here for supper after February."--So you're just preparing yourself? "Yes," Tournear said.

Meals Plus will hold a series of fundraisers to bring in increased income for both the home delivered and the congregate programs.

The popular "Cooks Night Off" program will extend throughout 2012. Meals Plus offers a choice of roast beef or fried chicken dinners complete with generous sides and a dessert for $7 from 4 until 6 p.m. the third Thursday of every month. Meals are served in the main dining room or patrons can drive through on the north side of the Senior & Family Resource Center. The program is in its fourth year.

This fundraiser and others would allow Meals Plus for Seniors to serve people in the community who need Meals on Wheels or congregate meals but cannot afford to pay. For additional information or to inquire about meal service, please call Meals Plus for Seniors at 217-224-5031.

The proposed changes are being enacted to attempt to balance the budget while continuing to serve those who need the meals the most. Other cuts may be necessary.

"I think it's going to hurt real bad, you know? With your gas prices going up, your medical costs and everything like this, I don't see how people can keep going you know?" Tournear said.