Five days a week, Crystal Lake resident Ted Schmidt drives around McHenry and Island Lake delivering brown bags that contain trays with cooked meat and vegetables, as well as milk, bread and fruit, to area seniors.
Luckily, Schmidt and other drivers who deliver lunches for The Salvation Army’s Golden Diners program have not had to cut back delivery of the 50 to 60 meals a day because of the federal sequestration.
The federal sequestration was a set of automatic budget cuts that started in March when lawmakers and the president could not come to an agreement to reduce federal spending. The spending reductions are meant to cut $85.4 billion in federal spending this year and $1.1 trillion in federal spending over 10 years.
Among the cuts was senior meals funding, which meant federally assisted programs such as Meals on Wheels would be able to serve 4 million fewer meals, according to the White House.
The Salvation Army’s Golden Diners program, which operates in both Kane and McHenry counties, has a $1.6 million annual operating budget, of which $600,000 comes from the USDA’s Nutrition Services Incentive Program. Golden Diners projects it will serve 196,000 meals in both counties to seniors this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Because of the federal sequestration, the Golden Diners program had a $32,000 cut in its USDA funding, said Maj. Ken Nicolai, who administers the program for The Salvation Army.
Nicolai said the organization hopes the money will be restored in the future, but if the cuts stay in place, money for vehicle and kitchen equipment replacements would have to come from other sources, “or we have to get it out of our operating budget.”
To prevent seniors from feeling the cuts and being put on waiting lists, the Kane and McHenry program decided to hold off on some capital purchases, such as vehicles, Nicolai said.
To help save money, last year the program went from having its meals for seniors catered by an outside company to cooking the meals at a central location in Elgin. It also wants to open a central kitchen at its Crystal Lake location.
Having meals catered cost $4.62 per meal. Cooking at the Elgin location costs $3.26 per meal.
“Luckily we changed our operational style; it [the federal cuts] didn’t hurt us as hard as it hurt some,” Nicolai said.
Mary Ann Beck, a site coordinator for the Golden Diners, said all her drivers are asking for mileage reimbursement because of high gas prices. Employees are reimbursed 55.5 cents per mile, and volunteers are reimbursed 14 cents per mile. In the past, many drivers have donated gas reimbursement back to the Golden Diners.
As more volunteers begin to ask for mileage reimbursement, The Salvation Army is looking to buy its own vehicles, Nicolai said. Under that plan, volunteers still would deliver meals, but not use their own vehicles.
Delivering the lunches is more than just providing at least one good meal a day.
Beck said that when a door isn’t answered, drivers report the issue to Senior Services, which then calls that person’s emergency contact.
“We’ve had a few people where they have fallen and they were lying on the floor, and they were waving to the drivers,” Beck said. “The drivers get so attached to these people through the years.”
Georgia Hickson, 73, of McHenry, lives with her nephew but is alone during the day. She has had meals delivered to her for two years.
She’s had a stroke and kidney problems and has a difficult time using her right hand.
“It’s too hard for me to cook all my meals for myself,” Hickson said.
If there was a cut to services, and she had to be put on a waiting list, Hickson said it could potentially hurt her.
“It would hinder me quite a bit,” Hickson said. “It would be hard for me to do things.”