Charleston, W.Va. – Ruth M. Jones doesn't know what she'd do without hot meals delivered daily to her home. The 81-year-old Charleston widow can't walk or drive since a car crash nine years ago left her stricken by arthritis.
"A lot of times I can't even get into the kitchen," said Jones, who relies on her Social Security check to cover the soaring costs of food and utilities.
Those same costs are squeezing the estimated 20,000 senior nutrition programs across the country that serve Jones and millions of elderly and frail Americans.
While most needs are still being met, advocates from California to New York worry that seniors will go hungry. They blame a nearly 20 percent increase in fuel and food prices over the past year, flat or reduced government funding, and an ailing economy that yields fewer donations.
"All of that is generating a lot of anxiety," said Bob Anderson, associate director of the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Across the country, nearly 60 percent of the estimated 5,000 programs that belong to the Meals on Wheels Association of America have lost volunteers who can't afford gas, said Enid A. Borden, president and CEO of the program that has been providing meals to Americans in need since 1954.
Nearly half the programs have eliminated routes or consolidated meal services. Some 38 percent have switched to delivering frozen rather than hot meals, while about 30 percent are cutting personal visits from five days a week to one.
"We're in a crisis and it's just getting worse and worse," said Borden, who is urging Congress to increase money for senior nutrition programs by at least 10 percent.
Two pending bills don't come close to that amount, said Peggy Ingraham, the association's senior vice president for public policy. A House subcommittee is considering a 6.5 percent increase for senior nutrition programs for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, while a Senate subcommittee is considering a 5.7 percent increase. The federal earmark for the current fiscal year is $758 million.
Cuts are already inevitable in New York City, said Marcia Stein, executive director of Citymeals on Wheels, where meetings are under way this week to work out details such as who will no longer receive meals.
"We have no choice," she said. "It's like trying to take a size 10 foot and putting it into a size 7 shoe."