Meals on Wheels People will close its dining room and delivery services at the Firstenburg Community Center at the end of June. In the future, however, it could be replaced with a cafe-style operation open to the general public — not just seniors.
Renata Wilson, the nonprofit’s CEO, talked with volunteers and diners Monday in the Firstenburg dining room. She reiterated that the decision to merge the Firstenburg operation with other Meals on Wheels centers around Clark County was made before any announcements about the proposed federal budget, which looks to slash funding to social services. It’s unclear how the next federal budget will impact Meals on Wheels programs around the country.
“We’ve never been covered fully by the government grants,” Wilson said.
She said closing Firstenburg was a financial decision. It costs $317,751 annually to run Meals on Wheels operations at Firstenburg. On average, 14 to 15 clients dine there each weekday and about 140 meals are delivered out of that location. Costs have gradually gone up while attendance has gradually gone down, Wilson said. Meals served at the center have decreased 13 percent over the last two years.
“We can’t continue to subsidize this for 14 people,” Wilson said.
Meals on Wheels People, which covers Clark, Multnomah and Washington counties, has operated the dining and delivery services out of Firstenburg Community Center for 10 years.
Other centers in Oregon’s Multnomah and Washington counties are closing for the same reason. Congregate dining is not as popular as it used to be.
Meals on Wheels at the Firstenburg Community Center
$317,751 — Annual cost to operate dining room and delivery
15,165 — Additional meals that could be delivered with closure of Firstenburg operations
240 — Volunteers
140 — Homebound clients getting meals from Firstenburg
That’s why Meals on Wheels is looking for a commercial space that could house a cafe-style model. It would be similar to Grounds for Opportunity Cafe, a cafe and training kitchen in Kelso that serves breakfast and lunch. Like other Meals on Wheels centers, there would be just two paid employees: a manager and a chef. Other cafe staff would work unpaid as part of an employment training program. Meals on Wheels participants could continue to pay what they can afford for a meal while other, younger patrons would pay a set menu price.
“We need to merge first,” Wilson said. “What’s coming I think it could be actually better.”
Those who oppose the closure say it’s about the socialization that happens in the dining room, not so much the food.
“Obviously, we don’t like it,” said Daniel Haskell, a diner.
Another criticism was that senior services are not being equally distributed across the city, and that seniors will have difficulty traveling to another Meals on Wheels center. There are dining rooms in Washougal, Battle Ground, La Center, Ridgefield, Amboy and at the Luepke Community Center in Vancouver.
Janice Butze, who manages Meals on Wheels programs and operations in Clark County, said the nonprofit will help clients figure out which dining room is the easiest to access. And, driving routes will be reorganized to cover those people who get home-delivered meals from Firstenburg. Luepke will absorb the bulk of services.
“Our No. 1 priority is always going to be the home-bound,” she said.
Meals on Wheels People said that the money saved by closing the Firstenburg dining room could pay for 15,156 meals delivered to home-bound seniors.
Myrna Brown, a volunteer and occasional diner, said she knows it makes financial sense to cease operations, but she’s still worried about the people it’ll displace.
Evelyn Hallett said people should accept the fact that this is going to happen and try to mitigate the transportation issues.
She’s talking with C-Van about how Meals on Wheels participants on the east side could be shuttled to the Luepke Community Center for lunch at its dining room.