Waiting for Meals on Wheels

dog and human
Susan Beltran and Annie wait for Meals on Wheels. Photo: Michael Lyle

In 2017, Nevada lawmakers pledged funding to address the nearly 1,000 people waiting to take part in a Meals on Wheels program. A year later, the waiting list still has 800 people on it.

The Legislature approved $3.4 million to fund home-delivered meals until 2019, increasing the budget by $1.9 million. The state was able to increase funding from $2.65 per meal to $3.15 and reduce the waitlist by 350 people, according to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services Aging and Disability Services Division (ADSD).

“We always try to make an estimate based on the need,” says Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton. “We added (the money) to address the waitlist knowing the numbers might change as the waitlist ebbs and flows.”

But with more people applying and a growing number of seniors in Nevada, it’s hard to estimate how many people might need home-delivered meals.

“My hope is (the state) recognizes the number and adjusts the budget to eliminate the list,” said Barbara Paulsen, who works with the faith-based coalition Nevadans for the Common Good.

“I’m just thankful I am able to eat everyday”

On the morning Susan Beltran is scheduled to have her meals delivered, it’s hard to tell who is more excited that the Meals on Wheels van is pulling into the driveway: Beltran or her 4-year-old pitbull mix, Annie.

“She can hear when he is pulling up and gets really excited,” the 64-year-old says.

Early last year, there were days Beltran would simply go without eating.

Even when things went smoothly, her fixed Supplemental Security Income only went so far. When her air conditioning went out, her brakes needed repairing, or she needed a plumber — all things that happened within the last year — her fixed income wasn’t enough. Strapped for cash, Beltran missed some meals.

“So I wasn’t taking my medications because you need to take them with food,” she says. “I have seven medications, and I’m diabetic.”

Beltran tried food banks, but she has trouble walking and couldn’t stand in long lines.

Some reprieve came last summer when she found she qualified for Meals on Wheels.

“I’m just thankful I am able to eat everyday,” she says.

“It makes sense economically” 

According to Meals on Wheels of America, one in six seniors struggles with food insecurity and an estimated 18 million live in or near poverty.

Federal funding for safety net programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, have been on the chopping block, leaving many low-income seniors on a fixed income vulnerable.

Churches and social service providers have tried to pick up the slack out of their own budgets.

In Nevada, the state ADSD allocates money to help feed low-income seniors. In addition to state funding, about $3 million comes from the federal Johnson-era Older Americans Act. 

The funding is distributed to each county, and selected service agencies use the money to provide congregate meals, such as at senior centers, and home-delivered meals.

In addition to what the state contributes, some agencies also provide funding out of their budgets. For example, Catholic Charities says 60 percent of its Meals on Wheels budget is covered by the state, and the organization’s fundraising covers the rest.

Sandi Ritchie Chmielewski, 65, was one of the 3,000 seniors Catholic Charities served in the last year. 

She broke her hip last summer, and has had trouble getting around ever since.

“I can take my scooter up to Walgreens around the corner, and sometimes I can make it to Walmart,” she said. “I can’t do that in the summer though.”

Plus, she can only fit so much into her basket.

But Chmielewski is also on a fixed income and relies on her Social Security Disability Income, which made her eligible for Meals on Wheels.

Deacon Tom Roberts, the executive director of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, says it’s not just a meal but also making sure clients get proper nutrition.

A week’s worth of meals — all prepared at Catholic Charities and frozen — are delivered at once, along with fruit and milk.

It’s not just meals.

For Beltran and Chmielewski, this gives them needed companionship. “I get so lonely here by myself,” Beltran says. “It’s just me and Annie.”

Just a few weeks ago, Beltran’s air conditioner broke and the inside of her mobile home reached 101 degrees.

When her driver found out, Catholic Charities made a few calls to try to get it fixed. “And they were out that day fixing it,” Beltran says.

Providing Meals on Wheels isn’t just the right thing to do, Roberts says.

“It makes sense economically,” he says. “This helps keep seniors in their homes and prevents them from going to assisted-living facilities and hospitals.”

A long wait until 2019

Jeffrey Duncan, a social service chief with the state ADSA, says Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and the City of Henderson are two of the Meals on Wheels providers currently reporting a waitlist.

There are 660 waiting on the Catholic Charities list. 

“Because of people coming on and going off this service for various reasons — like entering into the hospital, or maybe they only need this service temporarily following surgery or cancer treatments — our waiting list fluctuates constantly between 500 and 800 people,” says Leslie Carmine, a spokeswoman with Catholic Charities.

 The sickest and poorest on the list are given highest priority, added Roberts, the charity’s executive director.

“People could be on there 60 days or six months,” he says. “It just depends.”

Chmielewski waited about two months, but was able to rely on food from her family and landlord.

Henderson has 187 people on the waitlist, down from 335 a year ago. 

After realizing there was a large waitlist of low-income seniors waiting to join the program, groups such as Catholic Charities and Nevadans for the Common Good rallied legislators to take action in 2017.

Advocates had been trying to get more funding for Meals on Wheels for years.

Carlton doesn’t know for sure why legislators were slow to act, but points to the economic downturn as probable culprit.

“In 2009 and 2011, it was all about making cuts,” she says. “In 2013, it was about restoring some of those cuts. I wasn’t in the room in 2015.”

At the 2017 session, Catholic Charities and other providers, as well as people on the waitlist, testified in favor of the funding. With bipartisan support, there was finally some success.

“This was the first time ever they’ve allocated money like this,” Roberts says. During the session, Catholic Charities pointed to an analysis that ranked Nevada ranked 51st in funding for home-delivered meals.  

“Next session, we will come back and go over what was done,” Carlton says. “We will see what needs to be done (to get the agencies) fully funded.”

Roberts says Catholic Charities has already started working toward securing more funding for home-delivered meals when the Legislature meets early next winter, adding that Catholic Charities has spoken about it with gubernatorial candidates Steve Sisolak and Adam Laxalt. 

“This support will only become more vital in the face of increasing and devastating budget cuts Republicans would like to implement to similar programs nationwide,” Sisolak’s campaign said in a statement. “As governor, he will fight to protect these types of efforts, ensuring some of the most vulnerable Nevadans receive the services and help they need.” 

Laxalt’s campaign didn’t respond for comment.

Meantime, 2019 is far away for people on the waiting list. The only action Catholic Charities can take to seal the gaps are community donations and private partnerships.

“We have the engine built to provide the meals,” Roberts says. “We just need more money.”

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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