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Upshur County Senior Center staff members Brittany Gebler, lead cook, and Susie McKisic, nutrition site supervisor, offer pickup Meals on Wheels meals at the Warren District Volunteer Fire Department in Hodgesville Wednesday. / My Buckhannon file photo from October 2022

Upshur Senior Center at ‘critical stage’ after state, federal Meals on Wheels funding is cut

BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Senior Center has reached a “critical stage” regarding funding its Meals on Wheels program, its executive director told city officials Tuesday.

Tracie Thompson, UCSC director, appealed to Buckhannon City Council this week for financial support to fill a large gap after the state of West Virginia’s Bureau of Senior Services slashed per-meal funding reimbursement for the center’s Meals on Wheels program.

Thompson said the center serves a combined 300 meals a day to older adults – people aged 60 or older are considered seniors – and 180 of those are delivered once a day at lunchtime throughout Upshur County.

“These are seniors; they are homebound,” Thompson said. “Some of them are bedridden, and for some folks, we’re the only ones they see every day. We bring them a hot meal.”

The Senior Center, located at 28 North Kanawha Street, also serves about 120 additional congregate meals to older adults who come to the center to socialize.

“They come, and they eat, and then they can socialize, and we also offer activities – we offer exercise classes, tai chi, Zumba, we have different events every day, so we offer a lot of different services to seniors in Upshur County that help them maintain an independent life and quality of life,” Thompson said.

Thompson said she’d asked to speak at council because the center was at “a critical stage of our nutrition program.” She explained that when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the state of West Virginia’s Bureau of Senior Services bumped up the per-meal reimbursement to senior centers across the state from $5.25 to $7.50 and instructed them to add as many older and disabled people as possible to their Meals on Wheels delivery list.

“When covid hit, the state increased our meal [reimbursement] rates so we could take on anybody – they told us they wanted us to take on every individual we could,” Thompson said. “We used to have a limitation to that, but they gave us enough money to be able to add anybody because a lot of people were not coming out of their homes and needed food, so they raised our reimbursement rate from $5.25 per meal to $7.50 per meal.”

“As the staff and the board of directors, it was our goal to get as many people as we could and expand out to the county as far as we could as well because we weren’t reaching out to a lot of the Rock Cave, Hodgesville, Ellamore [areas], but with this funding coming in, we were able to do that,” she added.

Since then, the Senior Center has added a route in Hodgesville and plans to establish ones in Rock Cave and Ellamore eventually. In addition, food costs have risen throughout the pandemic, so each meal the center prepares costs approximately $10-$13, despite the reimbursement rate reverting back to $5.25. Thompson said center staff found out about the cut May 3 and it went into effect May 11.

“We are just in shock because they had told us to add on as many people as possible, and we wanted to because that’s our goal, but now we don’t have the funding to cover that increase,” Thompson said. “We’re looking at a large deficit or large gap around $145,000 to $150,000 next fiscal year because of this, so we’re starting our fundraising with you and going beyond that to try to fill this gap because I don’t want to have to go to somebody who’s on Meals on Wheels and say, ‘I’m sorry we can’t do this anymore.’”

Thompson said the Senior Center had added about 100 individuals to its Meals on Wheels list, most of whom were either 60 years or older or disabled and should have been on the list prior to COVID.

Councilman Dave Thomas asked whether the Senior Center vetted its Meals on Wheels recipients to ensure they are low-income and that they actually need meals delivered.

“Do you make a visit to the home to see that they actually need Meals on Wheels?” Thomas asked.

“Yes, they have to meet certain criteria, and we have a form that has a number of questions to answer, such as ‘Can they drive? Can they make meals? Do they have someone in the home who can make meals for them?’” Thompson replied.

She also said the Senior Center suggests a $3 donation per meal, but most recipients aren’t able to give that every day.

“A lot of these seniors [have to make the decision] — are they going to pay for their medicine or are they going to pay for food? They’re in that spot – most of them are,” Thompson said.

Thompson said she and other senior center directors across the Mountain State had appealed to Governor Jim Justice’s office for assistance, and city recorder Randy Sanders asked if they had received a response.

“They said that they cannot promise any extra funding and that we need to operate like we were prior to COVID,” Thompson responded.

Buckhannon mayor Robbie Skinner asked Thompson to provide a breakdown of how many people Meals on Wheels serves in city limits versus outside city limits, saying that would determine how city officials proceed regarding the request.

“We have a committee process where we send this to the Revenue & Expense Review Committee, and they will review your application, and then we will bring it back to city council for the committee’s recommendation to council for final approval or not,” Skinner said. “We need to be careful with how we spend our resources that would benefit anybody or anything outside of corporate limits because essentially it would be the same as West Virginia spending money in Ohio or Upshur County spending money in Lewis County.”

“I think clearly we sympathize with you — this is upsetting and unfortunate information,” he added.

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