‘The worst thing’: This Meals on Wheels program faces dozens of layoffs as it loses funding

Broward’s chapter of Meals on Wheels, the organization that delivers meals twice a day to the neediest of senior citizens, has lost most of its federal funding and will be laying off dozens of people, losing the bulk of its staff, the organization said Friday.

The service, which has provided meals for nearly four decades, lost an estimated $3.8 million a year, or 80% of its budget, after the Area Agency on Aging of Broward County chose four private restaurants and catering companies to provide the services instead, said Mark Adler, the Meals on Wheels South Florida executive director.

The money came from its share of the federal Older Americans Act, which was signed into law in 1965. All 580 Meals on Wheels clients whose meals were funded under the federal money were rolled over to the new program.

The reason: The Area Agency on Aging of Broward County, which chooses how the federal funding is allocated locally, said this was the first time Meals on Wheels had competition when it came time to pick the vendors. There were six applicants to provide the home-delivered meals, and another five applicants to provide meals at the congregant sites.

An Area Agency on Aging of Broward County committee chose two restaurants and two catering companies for the homebound door-to-door service, which will provide a wider selection, including kosher, Italian, Cuban, Asian, pureed, gluten-free, and even cater to pescatarians and pollotarians, said Charlotte Mather-Taylor, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging of Broward County.

Two catering companies were also chosen to provide the 600 congregate meals, previously handled by Meals on Wheels.

“This is a very diverse community, we have people from a lots of different backgrounds,” Mather-Taylor said. “We’re really able to cater to people’s diets.”

The new food service went into effect July 1. Eligible seniors must be age 60 or over and homebound. Mather-Taylor said there are about 500 people remaining on a waiting list: “One person waiting is too much.”

Before the food was generally considered one size fits all but “we come from different backgrounds, and to suddenly require people to eat one type of food” wasn’t always well-received, said Mather-Taylor. “Now they can choose the food that’s best for them. We’ve had great feedback, we’ve had people calling us happy. The food is delicious.”

“We’re excited because we’ve been getting such great feedback from the seniors.”

But for Meals on Wheels South Florida, an institution with headquarters in Virginia and chapters throughout the country, the change has been crushing.

Along with its funding, and with 580 clients now gone, there are just 120 clients left, whose meals were subsidized by other funding sources, including private donations and city grants. Most of those 120 clients are still funded; 10 of them will now be on a self-pay plan for $55 a week.

The Plantation-based non-profit had 46 staffers and will be whittled down to “10 or 12” after the last round of layoffs Monday, Adler said.

“I don’t even have words for it,” Adler said. “We have staff who have been with us for 30 years and they are being laid off. It’s like breaking up a family.”

Professionally, this is “the worst thing I’ve had to go through.”

Keeping the agency open at all is because of the gift from MacKenzie Scott, a philanthropist and ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. In 2020 Scott gifted almost $4.2 billion to charities throughout the country, including several in South Florida which also included the Broward chapter of Meals on Wheels.

Adler said the agency had chosen to save most of their $4 million gift for a rainy day. Still, the agency will likely have to sell its building.

But: “We are not closing,” Adler said. “We’re having to reinvent ourselves.”

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at lhuriash@sunsentinel.com. Follow on Twitter @LisaHuriash

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