A federal program that covers nearly half of Maine’s Meals on Wheels costs faces an uncertain future under President Donald Trump’s recently announced budget proposal. The network of Area Agencies on Aging, which runs Meals on Wheels in Maine, is already scrambling to meet its clients’ nutrition needs — this news puts more pressure on these groups at a time when federal officials should be doing more, not less, for older Americans.

Nationwide, the biggest source of federal funding is the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program, which covers 35 percent of Meals on Wheels costs nationally. In Maine, the federal program accounts for 44.5 percent of Meals on Wheels spending; the rest comes from state, foundation, private and corporate sources.

So the announcement last week of a proposal to slash the federal Human and Services budget by 18 percent has ominous implications. “It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which these critical services would not be significantly and negatively impacted if (the budget proposal is) enacted into law,” Jenny Bertolette of Meals on Wheels America — a senior advocacy group that speaks on behalf of local Meals on Wheels programs — told National Public Radio earlier this week.

In helping fight hunger among older Mainers, Meals on Wheels and groups like it are taking on a huge challenge. One in six Maine residents age 60 and older — some 50,000 people — is struggling with hunger, according to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger. They may not consistently have access to nutritious food, and they worry that the food they do have on hand will run out before they’re able to afford more.

Any homebound person who’s at least 60 and can’t regularly prepare their own food is eligible for Meals on Wheels; there is no income test. Once a senior is connected with Meals on Wheels, they’re part of a program with major nutritional and social benefits.

Eighty-one percent of recipients say their health has improved since they started participating in Meals on Wheels (nutrition has been shown to speed recovery for those who have been ill or undergone surgery). Regular contact with the volunteer who brings their meal helps minimize social isolation, as do the check-in calls made by the program’s volunteer Phone Pals on nondelivery days.

Meals on Wheels is a relatively small federal investment (less than 0.01 percent of total spending) with a big payoff in health and quality of life for older Americans. The president’s budget chief and those who report to him should do a cost-benefit analysis and look elsewhere to find sources of government waste.

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