Senior meal program offers lower costs, expanded services

09/17/2013 5:09 PM

09/17/2013 5:09 PM

The scene at the Hy-Vee hot food line is a little bit chaotic as Nancy Ellis of Overland Park ponders her options during the Friday lunch rush. Fried food is out. So are desserts. “They told me I couldn’t have marshmallow salad,” she joked.

Ellis finally settled on baked whitefish with an apple-pecan salad. When it was time to pay, she handed over a light blue card and presto: Ellis had just participated for the first time in a novel new nutrition program offered by the Johnson County Agency on Aging.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away at the Matt Ross Community Center, a few tables of friends take in a lunch in one of the meeting rooms. Food, cooked off-site and delivered, is served in plastic containers.

Most, like Lydia Miller of Overland Park, don’t care that much about the food, which on this day is fish. Instead, they like the camaraderie and the chance to get out and catch up on everyone’s comings and goings.

“It just makes the day a lot nicer,” said Roma Tomlin of Overland Park.

People aged 60 and over have been coming to congregate meal sites like the one at Matt Ross for years for low-cost meals. But as more baby boomers chase an unchanging amount of funds from the federal Older Americans Act, the Hy-Vee meal plan may well be the wave of the future.

The program is called CHAMPSS, (Choosing Healthy Appetizing Meal Plan Solutions for Seniors) and it has been getting a lot of attention since the Johnson County Area Agency on Aging launched it in 2008.

Nancy Tanquary, county nutrition program manager, said she’s received inquiries from all over the country because of the program’s potential to increase services and meal choices while saving precious funds.

Offering more services on less money is very important, these days especially. Dan Goodman, director of the Johnson County Area Agency on Aging, said the population projections for those 56 and older over the next few decades are sobering.

In the year 2000, there were about 45,000 Johnson Countians in that age group, he said. By 2020, that number may be 94,000 and by 2030, the number is projected to be 137,000.

That might not be such a problem if funds for aging services were growing at the same rate. But federal funding, which comes through the Older Americans Act, has not increased over the years.

And Johnson County gets less than it might really be entitled to, because of the way the population is spread over the state. This year county officials rejoiced because it gets an additional $176,000 a year for aging services for the next seven years. But that’s less than the $300,000-a-year increase it could have been entitled to.

The county Agency on Aging agreed to the lower amount as part of a compromise. The federal money is given to the state to divide among its 11 agencies. Because the amount is based on Census data, areas in rural Kansas that were losing population might not have been able to remain open on the amount they would have received.

Sequestration, the federal budget cutting move, may also take a toll if it continues, said Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. “We have a huge growth in the aging population and at the same time an erosion of federal support of these programs,” she said.

Markwood said agencies on aging are looking to become more entrepreneurial by partnering with hospitals, grocery stores and by exploring private-pay options for non-federal programs.

The Johnson County CHAMPSS program works like this: Anyone 60 or older and their spouse can enroll in the program and get a card to pay for the meals. The suggested donation is $3.50 per meal. Then they just show up at one of three Hy-Vee stores in Olathe, Overland Park or Mission and use the card to pay for their lunch. Because it is a nutrition program, there are some restrictions on what food items would be paid for.

But generally it offers seniors a lot more choices than the traditional sites or Meals on Wheels, Tanquary said. There are other advantages, too. Participants can take care of other errands at the grocery store while they’re there, they aren’t segregated from the rest of the community and they can come any time between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. seven days a week. Traditional sites usually are just at a set time for lunch.

“Seniors are working well past the traditional 65. With this they are still able to get a meal and the choice is very appealing,” she said.

At least a few seniors agree. The program serves 700 meals a week and has 2,000 active participants.

People who provide services to an aging population like it for the increased options. But its potential to also save money for cash-strapped governments has sparked interest as well. At a traditional congregate site like Matt Ross, someone has to be paid to cook and package the food, and staff is needed to make sure it all runs smoothly, Tanquary said. Hy-Vee takes care of all those things in the new program. And there’s no room rental fee at the Hy-Vee.

Aging services providers will have to stay sharp to be able keep providing needed services as baby boomers age into eligibility, said Markwood of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. All that will be happening as budgets are shrinking.

“It really is a huge domino effect. Talk about a perfect storm,” Markwood said.

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