By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — For some senior citizens, it’s the difference between eating a hot, nutritious meal or nothing at all.
For Ron Lacroix, 76, of Salem, it means eating a lot fewer frozen dinners.
Rockingham Nutrition’s Meals on Wheels program serves 285,000 meals a year to approximately 3,000 residents in Rockingham County’s 37 communities.
But reduced federal funding for the program, including the recent automatic spending cuts that slashed $81,000 from its budget, have had a dramatic impact.
“We are delivering 17,000 fewer meals,” said Debra Perou, the agency’s executive director.
Meals on Wheels had to reduce its 70-employee payroll by $70,000 in June, laying off an employee and cutting pay for many others. It also relies on local government funding, donations and 240 volunteers to keep operating. Its $2.5 million annual budget is down $300,000 from four years ago.
The prospect of losing even more funding would be devastating to the program, Perou said yesterday.
It also would be devastating to people such as Gwen LaSpina, 76, of Salem, who depends on Meals on Wheels to serve her lunch three times a week at the Ingram Senior Center.
Cooking healthy meals can be a chore for many senior citizens, especially if they are disabled.
“I really rely on these meals,” LaSpina said. “That way I feel like I’m eating something nourishing and I don’t have to worry about it.”
Making sure senior citizens continue to receive their meals at an affordable cost is a cause U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said she intends to keep fighting for in Washington.
Yesterday, Shaheen and Perou helped Meals on Wheels driver Michele Small deliver meals of turkey, mashed potatoes, glazed carrots and eggnog cheesecake to senior citizens throughout Salem.
Shaheen also met with members of the senior center and nearly a dozen Meals on Wheels volunteers and staff members, who were preparing approximately 150 meals. She thanked them for their efforts.
“It’s important that people get the food they need,” Shaheen told them.
Many seniors would be forced to live in nursing homes if Meals on Wheels didn’t provide them meals, she said.
“For a lot of people, it’s helping them stay in their homes,” Shaheen said.
That includes Larry Somes, 85, and his wife Lillian, 78.
Lillian, who has macular degeneration, said her age and health have made it difficult for her to cook. Larry said he does a lot of the cooking, but it’s a challenge for him, too. Living on a fixed income is a problem as well, he said.
“The pension I got 25 years ago isn’t doing a lot now,” the retired Raytheon employee said.
Larry praised the Meals on Wheels program, but had some harsh words for political leaders. More needs to be done to help seniors, he said.
“Congress isn’t doing anything,” Larry said. “Things seem to be getting worse and worse.”
Shaheen said she would relay their concerns and need for the program to her colleagues in Congress.
One person who was concerned about the program was 87-year-old Dick Heald.
“I hope they don’t take it away,” he said.
“I’m hoping to try to save it,” Shaheen told him.
Heald and his wife, Elizabeth, are just two of 382 Salem residents served by Meals on Wheels last year. Of those 382, 95 are 85 or older, including Carol Rivard.
“I can’t cook, so I depend on that,” the 95-year-old said. “It helps out a lot.”
The program also serves 228 people in Derry, 135 in Londonderry and 119 in Hampstead, among residents of other Southern New Hampshire communities.