With CommUnify’s Senior Nutrition Program set to end on June 30 because it’s not financially sustainable, the Central Coast Commission for Senior Citizens, Area Agency on Aging will be taking over senior meal delivery starting July 1—at least for now.
“The Area Agency on Aging is a local entity that’s responsible for bringing in federal funds to help seniors be safe and secure in their homes,” Central Coast Commission for Senior Citizens Executive Director Joyce Ellen Lippman told the Sun. “Our role is to assess the needs of seniors here locally, which we do through surveys and questionnaires, and then allocate the funds to try and meet those needs.”
The agency’s primary purpose is to allocate funds, so when it first heard that CommUnify could no longer provide its vital meal service to the hundreds of local seniors who rely on it, the agency put out what’s called a “request for proposal” to see if any other community organizations could take on providing the resource. This process is a requirement for federal funds.
“We released it, and it had no applications,” Lippman said of the request for proposals. She said the short notice probably played a role, as the agency needed to find an organization to take over by the end of June.
“When that was unsuccessful, the board of directors had to look at what other options are allowable,” Lippman explained. “Normally, it can take months to create and start a nutrition program.”
The challenge is compounded by the pandemic, Lippman explained. Normally, only those seniors who are physically unable to go to a community center would get meals delivered directly to their homes, but COVID-19 changed that.
Before COVID-19, “seniors go to a community center and eat as a group, a nice, hot, nutritious meal,” Lippman said. “Since the pandemic, those individuals had their meals delivered to their homes because the sites weren’t open.”
Despite the additional challenges of delivering meals to people’s homes, the Area Agency on Aging found a temporary solution: Starting July 1, the agency will contract with a national meal provider, Mom’s Meals, to deliver food to about 650 seniors who normally benefit from CommUnify’s Senior Nutrition Program.
“That was the most expeditious, but not perfect, way to make sure seniors had meals on July 1,” Lippman said. “We were not going to tell seniors, ‘Well, we can’t serve you because we need more time.’”
In the meantime, the agency will continue to look for community organizations and partners that can take over senior meal delivery for the long term. Lippman said it’s likely that delivery will need to be divided up by city or region, rather than having one entity that serves the entire county, as CommUnify did historically.
“We’d look at the Santa Maria community, and we invite a bunch of people to a meeting, say, ‘This is the problem, we need to find some entity … to provide elderly nutrition services in the Santa Maria Valley,’” Lippman said. “We may, by regionalizing, be able to find interested parties. But that takes time.”
Until those entities are secured, the agency will make sure seniors are fed.
“Everyone in Santa Barbara County who received a meal on June 30 will get a meal on July 1,” Lippman said. “We’re tentatively projecting that for two to three months, while we try and get everything else done.”
At the root of Santa Barbara County’s senior hunger issue, Lippman said, is poverty.
“When you retire, you’re retiring on income and assets. And many people, through no fault of their own, have very limited income and very limited assets,” she said. “What we see with the seniors that call us, who we meet in some of the programs that we fund … there’s tremendous poverty among the elderly. Just look at housing costs in the state: If you choose to live here … you may not have anything left after that for good food.”
Thanks to COVID-19 related stimulus bills, the Area Agency on Aging has been able to provide additional money to the local nutrition and mental health programs they fund. But this one-time funding isn’t a long-term solution. Lippman wants the community to know that the Central Coast Commission for Senior Citizens is doing everything they can.
“We’re doing our best to address, right now, this issue, and we will continue to try desperately to meet the needs of seniors in our community,” she said. “It’s what we’re about.”
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Staff Writer Malea Martin wrote this week’s Spotlight. Send your business and nonprofit story ideas to [email protected].