County considers replacing seniors' hot meals with frozen

06/13/2014 9:33 PM

06/13/2014 9:35 PM

Garth Outzen lost vision in his left eye as a teenager, and a heart attack 10 years ago left him partially disabled.

The 73-year-old sat outside his Winton home Friday afternoon, a few hours after receiving a meal – a fish salad – from the county’s home-delivery program for seniors. Outzen is one of more than 100 homebound seniors in Merced County who receive hot meals five days a week.

But a contract before the Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday would replace five hot meals per week with frozen entrees. It would also eliminate daily visits to the seniors, many of whom are confined to wheelchairs or suffer from debilitating diseases.

“I wouldn’t eat them. We could buy them at the store,” Outzen, an Air Force veteran, said Friday. “If they are frozen (meals), I’ll quit.”

The move would save the county $80,000 a year, said Merced County Executive Officer Jim Brown. He said neighboring counties such as San Joaquin, Fresno, Stanislaus and Madera have made the switch to frozen meals.

Merced County receives state and federal funding to administer a home-delivery program to seniors and provide group meals at sites throughout the county.

The county Area Agency on Aging contracted with the Merced County Community Action Agency to run the program for the past 40 years. The contract was given to the Merced County Rescue Mission in 2012.

The Rescue Mission received a $45,000 advance from the county in November 2012 to start the program, according to invoices obtained by the Sun-Star. The $256,229 contract was funded from three sources: $132,796 from federal funds, $57,400 from the state and $66,033 from the county’s general fund.

Under the Rescue Mission’s management, seniors in “outlying areas” – Gustine, Stevinson and Santa Nella – were switched to frozen meals eight months ago, but the action on Tuesday could make the switch permanent for all seniors in Merced County.

The Rescue Mission’s contract for the home-delivery program ends June 30.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider approving a $231,234 contract with Taher Inc., the company that produces the food, to deliver 42,098 frozen meals for a year. Instead of daily meal service, the seniors would get a visit one day a week to drop off a pack of five frozen meals.

Social interaction cited

The topic of frozen meals isn’t new, according to Brenda Callahan-Johnson, Community Action Agency executive director. She said her agency previously fought the change.

Callahan-Johnson wrote a letter to Brown in May 2012 outlining concerns about serving frozen meals to seniors. According to the letter, the consumption rate is cut in half for seniors who aren’t given a daily hot meal, and many of them are physically unable to prepare the food.

The program is aimed at people 60 or older who are homebound due to illness, incapacity or disability, or who are otherwise isolated.

“Many of these seniors are in wheelchairs, suffer from physically debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s and partial blindness, and are struggling to stay in their home,” Callahan-Johnson wrote. “Heating up a frozen meal is not an option for them as physically they cannot do it.”

In an interview, Callahan-Johnson said providing a daily hot meal also allows volunteers to be the “eyes and ears” for the seniors, providing an opportunity to check on them.

“This wasn’t about the meal. It was about the interaction and being with the people,” Callahan-Johnson said. “Part of what we did is we poured their milk, looked around their house. Many of these people are on this program because they don’t have family.”

Ernie Solis was a site coordinator for the program when it was run by the Community Action Agency. During one of his visits, he said, he found a senior lying on his porch after he’d fallen and hit his head.

“If it wasn’t for the Meals on Wheels program, he would have laid there until 6 p.m. when his wife came home,” Solis said. “The point was to check on them and provide interaction.”

County faces deficit

Brown said the county is taking steps to ensure the seniors have daily social interaction through a volunteer program. He said the county also sent surveys to 152 affected seniors and received no complaints about the proposed changes.

“We are in the process of developing phone trees and other mechanisms to make sure there is some communication and check-in,” Brown said. “We are concerned. That’s why we are trying to take the necessary steps to address those issues before the transition.”

Brown said the switch to frozen meals was discussed in the past, but the county savings weren’t enough to make the change. Now the county faces a $2.3 million deficit in its proposed budget and county administrators are evaluating all programs and services.

“None of us like the idea of change, but at some point it becomes necessary,” Brown said. “At the time, I wasn’t comfortable with the way the program was being set up. It’s a more thoughtful implementation at this point.”

Brown said the Human Services Agency staff is also working with seniors to ensure they have a microwave or oven to warm up the meals.

But Los Banos resident Joe Sousa said that might not be enough for seniors who are not mobile. His mother-in-law, a 78-year-old Gustine resident, was switched to receiving frozen meals nearly a year ago.

He said his mother-in-law can’t move around after hip and hernia surgery.

“When they used to bring her the hot meals, she could just eat them. Now she has to take them to the microwave,” Sousa said. “For someone who can’t move around the house, it’s a really big deal for her. It makes it difficult.”

Sousa said the quality and quantity of the food has diminished.

“It’s like those 99 cent Swanson frozen dinners; it’s not very good stuff,” he said. “Sometimes she’ll skip meals because it’s just not that great.”

County officials said that a nutritionist will plan menus to ensure the dinners are wholesome and meet nutritional standards.

If the frozen meals contract is approved on Tuesday, it will run from July 1 to June 30, 2015.

The Board of Supervisors will meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday inside its chamber at the county administration building, 2222 M St. in Merced.

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