By CAITLIN ESCH
Smartly dressed in a tattered tan suit, 95-year-old Ricardo Majano reclined in a cafeteria chair after polishing off his lunch at Centro Latino.
“I don’t come here for the food; I don’t like the food,” Majano grumbled. “I come here for killing time. I don’t want to go anyplace else.”
Majano has been coming to Centro Latino for three years, eating lunch alongside almost 100 others, paying $1.50 a meal. And though he prefers a different kind of cuisine, the well-balanced lunch is a staple in the senior’s diet. And the socializing, he said, is priceless.
Centro Latino takes a bite out of hunger, preparing 300 meals a day. Over the course of a year, the center serves more than 2,000 seniors across four sites.
But Centro Latino and other senior nutrition programs are bracing for cuts for the second year in a row. Last year, the city cut the center’s funding by an estimated $25,000, according to Executive Director Gloria Bonilla. If cuts continue, the center may be forced to serve fewer meals at fewer sites.
“For many of our clients, this lunch is the only nutritionally balanced meal they receive,” Bonilla said. “They’ll have to choose between food and medicine… and some of our seniors take as many as 16 different medications a day.”
To deal with a $15.2 billion deficit, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2008-2009 budget—signed last week—suspended cost-of-living adjustments to the Supplemental Security Income and State Supplementary Payment programs, which help seniors and people with disabilities meet basic living needs. Budget cuts include a $35.9 million cut to county-run food stamp and in-home supportive services programs; a $13.2 million cut to Department of Aging programs; and an $11.4 million cut to Adult Protective Services.
The governor also eliminated $510 million in funding for health and human services programs geared toward seniors and low-income families.
Director Anne Hinton said the city’s Department of Aging weathered a $38,000 reduction to legal services, transportation and home care. And the Ombudsman Program—which provides long-term care for seniors in nursing homes—took a “devastating” hit.
Hinton said her office received conflicting information about the effect on senior food programs, and was waiting for state clarification as of Friday afternoon.
“The cuts will be spread out over many providers citywide, so I think the impact will be small,” Hinton forecast. Adult protective services—a program that protects elderly and disabled from neglect and abuse—will sustain a greater hit, she said.
Even if meal programs for seniors are spared, many senior care professionals said current services are far from sufficient.
Every day, the 30th Street Senior Center serves lunch to 230 seniors—40 more than it has funding to feed. Still, the center is forced to turn away nearly 20 seniors a day, according to Director Valorie Villela.
“If people are turned away a few times, they don’t come back,” said Villela. “And this is with our current funding—even that isn’t meeting the need.”
The San Francisco Food Bank estimated 150,000 people across San Francisco are at risk of going hungry.
The state cuts come at a time when food programs are desperately trying to expand. A few years ago, Centro Latino doubled its lunch program, expanding from two sites to four. San Francisco’s Meals on Wheels program has increased its services 25 percent since 2005.
“We’re seeing more people in food lines, requiring services they didn’t need before,” said Meals on Wheels Executive Director Ashley McCumber. “We’re seeing seniors who used to be able to make it on their own, now struggling.”
The Meals on Wheels staff delivers an average of 3,000 meals a day to homebound seniors for a total of 807,000 meals last year. This year, McCumber estimates more than 826,000 meals will go out.
The nonprofit organization expanded its services last year despite a 7 percent decrease in state funding. Although McCumber was waiting to hear how the program will be affectedby the new state budget, he is certain whatever funding it gets won’t be enough to meet the need—and the difference will have to come from private fundraising.
“In many cases, we’re not only providing consistent nutrition, but we’re the only faces they see all day—we’re delivering their food and reducing isolation,” he said.
The cost of a year’s worth of food delivered to one senior is less than a one-night stay in a hospital.
“By reducing services, we would be putting seniors at a terrible risk,” McCumber said. “If we can’t serve them and they don’t eat, they’ll end up in the hospital. It will cost more money in the end.”