August 8, 2014

Merced County supervisors to grapple with frozen vs. hot food for county’s seniors

Merced County administrators are pushing to replace the home delivery of hot meals to senior citizens with frozen entrees, but a final decision will be made by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Merced County administrators are pushing to replace the home delivery of hot meals to senior citizens with frozen entrees, but a final decision is in the hands of the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

County leaders say the switch to frozen meals will save $80,000 a year and won’t adversely affect seniors in the program, many of whom are confined to their homes due to illness, incapacity or disability.

County officials said the changes are needed to reduce program costs and meet food temperature guidelines. The proposal comes as Merced County faces a $2.3 million deficit in its proposed budget for 2014-15.

If the contract is approved Tuesday, senior citizens will no longer receive daily hot meals delivered to their homes five times a week. Instead, a box of five frozen meals would be dropped off once a week.

The meals would include frozen bread slices, fruit cups and juice containers. Milk is the only fresh item on the menu and salads will be eliminated.

The proposal was under discussion in June, but County Executive Officer Jim Brown removed the item from a Board of Supervisors agenda before it could be decided. Some residents spoke out against the changes, saying the majority of seniors in the program are physically unable to use a microwave because they are disabled, partially blind or confined to a wheelchair.

Some also criticized the taste, quality and portion sizes of the frozen meals.

Merced County Human Services Agency Director Ana Pagan said she’s so confident in the quality of the frozen foods that she would serve them to her 89-year-old mother.

“I would have no hesitation,” said Pagan, whose department oversees the program. “When my mom had her heart attack she was on frozen meals and didn’t have a problem with it.”

But many of the senior citizens interviewed by the Merced Sun-Star aren’t convinced.

“Number one, I don’t have room in my freezer. And number two, see what I do when I cook?” said 70-year-old Louise Stalcup, pointing to a burn on her left hand. “I was making a cup of coffee and I burned myself.”

Surrounded by her doll collection and two dogs on Tuesday, the wheelchair-bound Atwater senior said she’s been alone since her caretaker left recently. A crushed ankle landed her in a wheelchair and now she depends on the daily meals as her only nourishment.

“It gives me one good meal a day that I wouldn’t normally have,” Stalcup said, adding that she also enjoyed the daily visits. “I’m a widow now, and I would just miss the company.”

Not just about money

Pagan said changing the senior meals program isn’t only about saving money. She said the county has been out of compliance with food temperature guidelines because three out of the five county vans used to deliver the meals do not have proper equipment to keep the food hot or cold.

The meals, which are prepared at Merced College, start at 160 degrees and should never drop below 140 degrees, Pagan said. Weekly measurements show some of the food temperatures have dropped to 123 degrees, and it’s been an ongoing issue since January. “It has improved dramatically, but it’s still not where it needs to be,” Pagan said. “It’s very difficult to ensure the last meal is delivered at the right temperature.”

Volunteers use their personal cars for two of the seven delivery routes. If the county keeps the existing meal arrangement, officials said they would need to replace the volunteers with paid drivers and buy new trucks with the proper equipment, which would cost about $132,000. The other five county vehicles would eventually need to be replaced, Pagan said, because they have more than 100,000 miles on them. That would cost $215,000 over the next five years.

Critics of the frozen meals said once-a-week deliveries will eliminate the daily visits from volunteers, many of whom interact with the seniors and serve as the “eyes and ears” for those who live alone. Sixty-two seniors reported living alone, though they might get visits from family members or caretakers, according to county statistics.

Pagan said she has a plan for those who live alone and called it an “improvement” from the existing program. Those that live alone will get a daily phone call from a caseworker and receive a life alert system to call for help if there is an emergency. County employees called “home visitors” along with a team of volunteers will provide daily visits to those seniors who request it.

Pagan said a coordinator will be hired to oversee the volunteers, who will be required to undergo a criminal background check. “I’m designing the program so we can address all the issues of the seniors,” she said.

One-time funding will be used to purchase microwaves and freezers for those who don’t have them. Pagan said about five seniors don’t have microwaves, estimating the cost to buy them at less than $2,000. The life alert system will cost $5,000, she said.

Survey on change ‘vague’

Roughly 15 senior citizens in Gustine, Stevinson and Santa Nella were switched to frozen meals earlier this year, but the proposed contract on Tuesday would make the change permanent for all 152 recipients of the program.

The seniors who receive the frozen meals in those areas have “no complaints,” Pagan said.

County officials did a phone survey of 136 seniors, asking if they owned a microwave and freezer, whether they could operate a microwave and if their freezer had enough space to hold five frozen meals.

However, the four-question survey, obtained by the Sun-Star through a public records request, did not ask seniors if they would eat frozen meals or how they felt about the proposed changes. “They did it in a vague and disguising way,” said 78-year-old Richard Paulsen, who’s been a recipient of the senior meals more than a year. “Am I able to walk? Do I have a microwave? But they never mentioned anything about this until it came out in the paper.”

Paulsen said he likes the program the way it is, though he’s willing to try the frozen meals. “If I don’t like it, I’ll drop it,” he said.

Of the recipients surveyed, 30 said they are unable to operate a microwave or don’t have enough room in their freezer; nine did not answer or had disconnected phone numbers; five declined to answer questions and two were either busy or not feeling well.

Mary Brooks, a registered dietician at Los Banos Memorial Hospital, said the county switched to frozen meals in the 1980s and it didn’t work. Seniors burned themselves, some homes caught fire because of microwave wiring problems, and the food melted or was stolen by family members.

Brooks said she’s worried about seniors having the ability to store the meals and heat them up at the right temperatures. Brooks said she believes participation in the home-delivery program will drop because of the change to frozen food.

“I think it’s a horrible idea, unless they want to phase out the program,” Brooks said. “The program has always been a thorn in their side and somebody needs to take ownership of the program.”

Brooks questioned why the county supervisors don’t use their discretionary dollars – a $40,000 yearly allotment to be used at their discretion – to fund the program. The five districts had a combined balance of $435,330.78 as of June 17, with District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh having the largest amount: $210,978.56.

Walsh said he prefers to use his discretionary dollars to fund one-time projects, not ongoing operations.

“If it’s a one-time only cost that would assist with this project, I wouldn’t be opposed to looking at that,” Walsh said. “But if it’s operational costs we are talking about, then the challenge is that next year we’d need those same operational costs.”

The $173,428 contract under consideration on Tuesday is with Taher Inc., the company that produces the frozen meals, to provide service from Oct. 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015. The board meeting is 10 a.m. Tuesday on the third floor of the county administration building, 2222 M Street in Merced.


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