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Sequestration hurts senior nutrition: Forcing changes in services, closings at some sites

Marti Ollanketo serves Melvin Larson on Thursday at the Appleton meal site. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

APPLETON — When winter’s cold takes hold, it’s very easy for seniors to stay homebound and dwell on all the problems in life, according to Lois Rudnick of Appleton.

Fortunately, she knows the antidote. She makes it a practice to head over to the senior nutrition site at the Appleton American Legion post on most weekdays.

“I just need to get out,’’ said Rudnick. The mix of good food and socializing with friends never fails to lift her spirits, she said.

“You can feel the buzz,’’ said Erick Hedman, of the steady laughter and conversation surrounding him at the meal site on Thursday. Rudnick was among the more than two dozen who joined for a hot meal, to visit and check up on one another and for a few, play a hand of cards or put together a puzzle.

Hedman is the nutrition site director for the Prairie Five Community Action Council. He knows what problems are about too.

Federal sequestration is reducing the funding for senior citizen programs in 2014. Minnesota is also seeing its share of the available funds shrink. Its population over age 62 is not increasing as fast as in other states.

The reductions are forcing the agencies overseeing the popular senior nutrition programs to make difficult decisions. They’ve been tapping reserve funds in the last few years to keep operations unchanged, but no more.

Early next year, Prairie Five is planning to implement what it is calling change of services at six of its 27 meal sites in the counties it serves: Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine.

The Appleton site is among the six affected. It will remain open, but meals will no longer be cooked on-site.

The meal site in Echo will close, but home delivered meals will continue to be provided. In Ortonville, two meal sites will be reduced to one. And in Clarkfield, a privately-owned café is opening a diner’s club to provide a low-cost meal for seniors in place of the congregate program.

Lutheran Social Services is preparing to close 25 of its 225 locations in Minnesota due to the funding issues. It oversees the nutrition programs in the Region 6E counties of Kandiyohi, Renville, Meeker, and McLeod.  

The sites in Renville, Lake Lillian and Grove City are expected to close, although home delivered meals will continue, according to Monica Douglas, director of senior nutrition for LSS.

Seniors have been joining at a meal site in Appleton since 1977. Fears that it could be closed had been the cause of much frustration and anger among the seniors, according to diners at the site.

There’s some talk about raising funds to upgrade the site in hopes of continuing the kitchen; in the meantime, they’re happy that the site will remain open.

“It gets to be our family. This is our big family,’’ said Carol Dishon, who with her husband Jim have been volunteering at the site for more than 26 years.

She said it upsets many that the federal government is cutting funds for a relatively low cost program for seniors, who’ve paid taxes all of their lives.

Hedman said Prairie Five knows how important the nutrition program is to seniors. It’s doing its best to assure that funds are utilized and targeted as effectively as possible. For many seniors, the noon meal represents the only hot meal of the day, he noted.

Prairie Five serves about 500 meals each weekday at an average cost of $6.95 per meal. Participants contribute more than $3 per meal to offset the cost.

The average age of those participating in the program in the Prairie Five counties is 85.

Many of the participants live in smaller towns without grocery stories.

The small towns in the rural region are widely separated. It can be very hard for people in their 80’s to get around in the winter, he noted. The meal sites, and the Prairie Five transit program that many seniors rely on to reach the meal sites, play big roles in their lives.

“It’s a good program,’’ said Ruby Lokken, head cook at the Appleton site. She’s been working at the site for 15 years.

She is expecting to stay on as a site manager, but will see a reduction in hours when food is no longer cooked there.

While the changes are not welcome to her or what she calls her second family that joins each noon, she said the important thing is that the site continues. “This is a big deal for them,’’ she said, moments before the diners lined up on queue for the day’s meal.

Hedman told the diners that a group of singers will be at the meal site on Wednesday. They will lead songs to celebrate the holidays and the fact that the site will be continuing.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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