Norwich's free ride for Meals on Wheels ends

Meals on Wheels drivers Donna Deveau, right, and Leon Watson wheel a cart of meals to Deveau's truck at the TVCCA's commissary Monday in Bozrah.
Meals on Wheels drivers Donna Deveau, right, and Leon Watson wheel a cart of meals to Deveau's truck at the TVCCA's commissary Monday in Bozrah.

Norwich - For the past 40 years, the local Meals on Wheels senior nutrition program has brought lunches and dinners to hundreds of elderly residents in 36 towns in eastern Connecticut.

Every one of the 36 towns has paid an annual fee to the Thames Valley Council for Community Action to help defray costs not covered through the federal operating grant.

Except Norwich, the largest town in the region with the most Meals on Wheels clients at 122 this year.

Since 1973, annual letters requesting a budget subsidy have been rejected or ignored by Norwich budget authorities. A year ago, TVCCA made the request yet again for the 85 cent-per-meal contribution, with the same result.

At that time, TVCCA warned that pending federally mandated funding cuts known as the sequester would hit and would greatly affect the services to Norwich seniors in the Meals on Wheels program.

TVCCA lost $66,000 in Meals on Wheels funding through sequester cuts. Timothy Grills, director of Nutrition Services for TVCCA, was forced to lay off 12 Meals on Wheels drivers and cut deliveries to Norwich clients from four days a week to one day a week starting last week.

Norwich was asked to contribute $18,000 to restore meal deliveries to four days a week, TVCCA Executive Director Deborah Monahan told the City Council Monday night.

A few Meals on Wheels supporters carried signs Monday urging the City Council to "Please Support Meals on Wheels."

The effort paid off.

In an unusual move, the aldermen recessed the meeting to allow Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll to draft an ordinance to draw the money from the general fund surplus to cover the TVCCA shortfall. The council will hold a public hearing Nov. 4 - on the eve of the municipal election Nov. 5 - and could vote on the ordinance that night.

Language in the ordinance, though, calls for reducing the city's appropriation by any alternative funding TVCCA might receive.

TVCCA receives about $4 per meal in federal funding, and supplements that with funding from the towns, requested contributions from clients - which average about $1 per meal - and with fundraising, Grills said.

During their one visit to Norwich clients, drivers drop off one hot meal and a milk crate containing frozen meals the clients are asked to use throughout the week, hoping their freezers and refrigerators have enough room to store the items, Grills said.

"It's not really a question of will they starve," Grills said. "It's a question of 'are they OK?'"

He visited one 90-year-old World War II veteran who had eaten all his meals within three days, not able to figure out how to space out the meals to cover the entire week.

The service provides more than just meals, said Grills, who also serves as a driver.

"Our drivers know their clients," he said. "They know when something's wrong. They check on their clients. It might be the only contact they get all day."

Debbie Kievits, now a
TVCCA board member, said Meals on Wheels supported her family five years ago when she was ill and home-bound with two children, ages 10 and 12.

"Without Meals on Wheels, I don't know how my kids would have been able to eat," she said.

Monahan told the City Council all other towns are contributing to replace the lost federal funds, in addition to their annual allocations.

Before the council insisted on an ordinance, City Manager Alan Bergren announced he would ask the city's 900 employees for donations to Meals on Wheels. He said the donation drive would continue.

Alderman Mark Bettencourt, whose wife works for the Meals on Wheels program, said it was "shameful" that the city hasn't agreed to cover the funding gap, as well as the annual request.

Alderwoman Deberey Hinchey, a mayoral candidate, said state Sen. Cathy Osten, plans to meet with state budget officials to see if the state can fill the funding gap, but she felt the city shouldn't wait.

"I don't understand why we cannot find that small amount to pay for these drivers," Hinchey said. "I think it's irresponsible."

Asked about next year, Monahan promised the City Council she would return once again for the annual request to the city for the program.

On Monday morning, aromas of cooking food wafted from the busy TVCCA commissary kitchen on Stockhouse Road in Bozrah as some of the 16 staff members heated that day's hot lunches to be delivered while other workers sorted the packaged frozen meals to be delivered to Norwich clients during the day.

Each meal contains one-third of the federal Recommended Daily Allowance of a protein, starch, vegetable, fruit and grain. The meals do not include dessert, because of concerns about potential diabetic clients, Grills said.

The kitchen prepares 1,400 meals per day, Grills said. Any surpluses from after packing the weekday meals are used to offer additional weekend meals to clients.

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