The Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to swap home-delivered hot meals to senior citizens with frozen entrees, despite strong criticism from nearly a dozen residents – some of whom compared the frozen meals to Popsicle sticks.
County supervisors voted 4-1 to approve a contract with Taher Inc., the company that produces the meals beginning in October, with Supervisor Deidre Kelsey casting the dissenting vote. The action means about 150 homebound seniors will no longer receive daily hot meals delivered to their homes five times a week. Instead, a box of five frozen meals will be dropped off once a week.
Voicing concerns about losing the daily interaction provided by the delivery of hot meals, the board directed staff to bring back a plan for a volunteer program to fill that void. It’s unclear how many volunteers will be recruited or the costs associated with hiring a volunteer coordinator.
Critics of the frozen meals poured into the board chamber Tuesday, asking how disabled seniors will operate a microwave, and questioning the taste and quality of the frozen food and the loss of companionship from the daily deliveries.
Merced County receives state and federal funding to support the program, which provides meals at seven congregate sites and home delivery to seniors who are 60 and older or confined to their homes due to illness, incapacity or disability.
The switch to frozen meals would save the county $80,000 a year, county administrators said.
The home-delivery program costs are estimated at $342,751 for fiscal year 2014-15, with $199,193 coming from the state and federal funding. The county is required to kick in just $31,436, but provides an additional “over-match” of $112,122 to run the program.
However, county officials are now saying it isn’t just about money, but that the temperatures of the meals being delivered have dropped below food safety guidelines since January.
“We had reached the point where we had tried everything we could think of to bring it to compliance,” Human Services Agency Director Ana Pagan said.
Pagan said food temperatures are measured by delivery drivers and volunteers when the meals are picked up and again before the last meal is delivered. The state “noted” the temperatures being out of compliance during audits, Pagan said, but the county has not been financially penalized.
Besides a quarterly visit from the program’s dietitian, county staff do not personally measure the food temperatures and have no way of confirming the calculations reported by volunteers and drivers are correct.
Registered dietitian Mary Brooks said she’s tested the food when it’s delivered and it has always met temperature requirements. “This is not a health and safety issue, so don’t make it one,” she told county supervisors Tuesday. “This is not a reason, it’s an excuse.”
The contract approved on Tuesday could potentially result in a loss of jobs.
The Merced County Rescue Mission, which is contracted to run the program, employs five paid drivers to deliver the meals, but Taher will bring in its own drivers when it takes over.
Mission CEO Bruce Metcalf said some staffing changes will be necessary, but he’s waiting to see if Taher hires any of his drivers. “Obviously we wouldn’t need as many drivers if we were only delivering to the congregate sites,” Metcalf said. “I’m going to wait to see what happens.”
Merced County isn’t the first to approve frozen meals for its homebound seniors. Neighboring counties such as San Joaquin, Fresno, Stanislaus and Madera have made the switch to frozen meals.
Jean Robinson, executive director of the Fresno-Madera Area Agency on Aging, said Fresno has been serving frozen meals for at least 15 years. Madera County converted two years ago.
“Our transition was seamless and very well received,” Robinson said. “We haven’t had any complaints. With the frozen (meals), they can pick and choose the time of day they want to eat.”
Robinson said a major selling point for the program in her area was that it doubled the number of meals for seniors from seven to 14 per week, including a fresh breakfast with milk, juice and cereal. Merced County's program remains at five meals per week.