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    Meals on Wheels will keep on rolling

    The program was set to cut 100,000 meals, but now, after government help, it can serve more.

    By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 13, 2001

    Meals on Wheels, the popular door-to-door nutrition program for the elderly, will expand next year in Pinellas County, not contract as officials previously warned.

    Last month, Neighborly Senior Services, the non-profit agency that operates Meals on Wheels, said it would eliminate at least 100,000 meals in 2002 because the program was operating at a loss.

    In the past, Neighborly had compensated for deficits by dipping into agency reserves, director Fred Buchholtz said last month. But a sour economy and dwindling investment returns made such subsidies impractical for next year's budget, he said. Cutting meals was the only option.

    Now those plans have changed.

    After weeks of negotiations, Neighborly has reached a compromise with its governmental overseers that should add 232 clients and 31,000 extra meals to the Meals on Wheels rolls.

    Under the compromise, Neighborly will cut its overhead by eliminating 11 staff positions, Sally Gronda, director of the Area Agency on Agency, said Wednesday.

    The Area Agency, which monitors Neighborly's programs, agreed to let Neighborly merge eight congregate dining sites into four.

    In congregate dining, elderly people are transported to a church or meeting hall for a subsidized noontime meal. Some sites were sparsely attended, which made them inefficient, according to Neighborly.

    None of the elderly now eating congregate meals will be removed from the program, Gronda said. But with four centers being eliminated, some people will have to transfer to new sites, perhaps farther from their homes. Because Meals on Wheels lunches also are prepared at the congregate dining sites, some volunteer drivers will have to pick up their meals at new centers.

    The compromise will shift about $300,000 from the congregate dining side of the nutrition ledger to the home-delivered side, enough to cover Meals on Wheels' projected deficit, and then some, Gronda said.

    "Meals on Wheels is one of the most critical services" for the elderly, she said. "We just couldn't accept" Neighborly's proposed cuts.

    Another ray of hope is on the horizon, Gronda said. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have authorized additional money for elderly nutrition programs under the Older Americans Act. If they can iron out minor differences, Meals on Wheels should receive a funding increase sometime in 2002.

    Congregate dining centers being eliminated as of Jan. 2 are:

    Covenant United Presbyterian Church, 4201 Sixth St. S, St. Petersburg. Congregate diners and volunteer drivers will shift to the Enoch Davis Center, 1111 18th Ave. S.

    John Knox Apartments, 1035 Arlington Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Congregate diners and volunteer drivers will shift to the city of St. Petersburg's Sunshine Center, 330 Fifth St. N.

    Trinity United Church, 1150 49th St. N, St. Petersburg. Congregate diners and volunteer drivers will shift to the Gulfport Multi-purpose Center, 5501 27th Ave. S.

    Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, 301 37th Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Congregate diners and volunteer drivers will shift to Crystal Lakes Manor, 4100 62nd Ave. N.

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