Amid rising costs, Vermont agencies celebrate additional funds for senior meals

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 08-07-2023 10:27 PM

SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — Nutritional programs for older adults have received a sustained boost in state funding, which will be distributed to programs throughout Vermont that provide home-delivered and congregate meals.

The additional $1 million, part of the state budget, was approved by lawmakers in June, when the Legislature overrode Gov. Phil Scott’s veto. The funding is part of the state’s “base budget,” which means it will be included year after year, said Mary Hayden, executive director of the Vermont Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

“That is really exciting news for us,” Hayden said last month.

The additional funding comes as home-delivered meal providers continue to see an increase in demand throughout the state and the population continues to age. Costs have also gone up: In fiscal year 2021, the average cost of a home-delivered meal in Vermont was $12, Hayden said. Meal providers will begin to see an increase in their budgets when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

“Statewide, the number of seniors enrolled in the home-delivered meals program has been increasing for several years now,” Hayden said.

While the additional funding is welcome, Hayden said inflation is still taking a toll on meal providers.

“Inflation and the current cost of food and supplies do continue to impact the meal providers just as it does for each of us at the grocery store every time we shop,” Deanna Jones, executive director of the Thompson Senior Center, wrote in an email: “Inflation also affects those we serve in how they shop. We continue to hear that the meals we serve in-house or deliver are the primary meal of the day and the main source of food for most participants.”

Funding for senior nutritional programs primarily comes from the federal Older Americans Act, which is then distributed to states. Vermont splits the funding between area councils on aging, which then distribute it to meal providers throughout their regions. Additionally, the area aging councils — also known as triple A’s — and meal providers, which include area senior centers, can raise money through fundraising in addition to asking town governments and voters to contribute. Per federal regulations, those who receive home-delivered meals do not have to pay for them, though they can contribute donations: Those who receive meals must be age 60 or older and cannot provide meals for themselves.

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Senior Solutions, a triple A that serves older adults in 46 towns in Bennington, Orange, Windham and Windsor counties, is expected to receive around $170,000 in additional funding, said Thom Simmons, nutrition director for the Springfield, Vt.-based nonprofit organization.

“For us, we have set aside $100,000 of that specifically to directly compensate the meals sites that produce their own food who we reimburse,” Simmons said. That includes the Thompson Senior Center in Woodstock and Bugbee Senior Center in White River Junction.

The funding allows Senior Solutions to raise its reimbursement rate from $5.34 to $6 and its congregate meal reimbursement rate from $4.29 to $5, Simmons added. Of the meal sites that are in Senior Solutions’ coverage area, seven of the 13 do not make their meals onsite and instead are part of a group contract with a larger company to make the meals; Senior Solutions has set aside $50,000 for those meal sites.

That leaves roughly $20,000 for Senior Solutions to keep as a nutritional emergency fund in case any meal sites see large increases in the number of recipients.

“We want to make sure we can cover any increase they experience,” Simmons said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, congregate meal sites shut down across Vermont. Some patrons signed up for home-delivered meals while others took advantage of “grab and go” programs hosted by meal sites. Initially, meal providers had thought that more people would return to congregate meal sites once they reopened but that hasn’t necessarily been the case.

“People who qualified during COVID continue to qualify for home-delivered meals,” Hayden said. “Even if it was expected to go down after COVID were not experiencing that. It’s still rising.”

The additional funding sprung from a bill proposed by state Rep. Daniel Noyes, D-Wolcott, in January, that would have provided an additional $2.3 million of state funds to Vermont’s Area Agencies on Aging to distribute to meal providers throughout the state. That bill was eventually folded into the state budget and the amount was reduced to $1 million.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.