Sequester Series: Hungry Hearts
Lack of funding for senior meal-delivery services cuts more than calories.
By Alex Kacik
Aug. 23, 2013
Opal Montgomery, who is 90 years old, has some advice for young Guillermo Navarro.
“Have fun while you’re young because it’s a little difficult when you’re a bit older,” she tells the athletic 25-year-old who has just put Montgomery’s meal—pork chops, mashed potatoes, broccoli, carrots and cauliflower—in the microwave.
“We’d go out and we used to foxtrot,” Montgomery reminisces from her recliner. Her big, black poodle greets Navarro who has joined Montgomery in the living room after warming her lunch and stocking her refrigerator with milk, juice and an orange.
“Then, I did the Charleston,” she continues, “which begins to date me.”
Navarro has delivered warm meals to Montgomery’s Carpinteria condo many times and has likely heard this all before. Still, he listens intently to what Montgomery calls her sermons of the day: “It’s easier to be nice than mean,” she says, and “smiles don’t cost a thing.”
There are about two dozen stops on his rounds, but Navarro’s not about to cut off Montgomery. “Sometimes I come by and they haven’t talked to someone for days,” he says. “It really opens your eyes and shows you how challenging things can get when you are older. It helps you appreciate life.”
Navarro delivers food to 26 low-income seniors and a handful of nonprofits and social service providers throughout Carpinteria. He starts prepping food at around 7 a.m. at the Back Door Deli on Camino del Remedio. Navarro carefully packs chests of food, heating plates, plastic trays and a dolly, organizing the jigsaw puzzle of meals and storage containers into the Senior Nutrition Services panel van. Rihanna’s “Stay,” playing on the radio, echoes through the van as Navarro makes trips back and forth from the kitchen.
The determined young man with a passion for soccer works for the Community Action Commission (CAC), a nonprofit organization that offers services such as early education and daily meals for children and seniors. Navarro stops at nonprofit centers such as Girls Inc. of Carpinteria, an after-school program for girls; the Friendship Center, which serves people with Alzheimer’s disease; and the early-education Head Start school. He visits the Sandpiper Mobile Village and San Roque Mobile Home Park, condos and townhome residences. Some people invite Navarro into their homes and ask him to help with chores such as replacing batteries in a clock or carrying water. Others leave a cooler outside their doors with a note.
A few of the seniors Navarro visits can get around to one degree or another, while others are bedridden. Navarro says one woman had an eviction notice on her Carpinteria apartment door for months. Another has told Navarro that she sometimes doesn’t eat until he drops off lunch. For some, Navarro’s visit means a source of sustenance they couldn’t otherwise afford. For many others, it may amount to the only conversation they will have that day.
“I always feel like somebody up there is watching over me, and if they are watching over me, they are watching over other people,” says the silver-haired Montgomery, who speaks slow and softly, smiling often. “It kind of makes you feel warm that someone cares about me.”
ucy Bellant‘s chihuahua Coco barks behind the screen door as Navarro approaches her apartment. Navarro helps Bellant feed the tiny dog because the frail 87-year-old’s mobility is diminishing.
“I’m like a spoiled baby. And he’s the kindest sweetest kid. It’s wonderful,” she says, talking over a soap opera in the background and Coco’s high-pitched barks. “He’s so kind, you know, and he takes care of everything just right. I totally depend on him.”
The CAC Healthy at Home program delivers daily meals to about 350 homebound seniors in Santa Barbara County. The program is similar to Meals on Wheels, but the CAC service is mostly federally funded, while the majority of Meals on Wheels funding comes from private donations. These, like many social service programs, are feeling the brunt of spending cuts known as the sequester.
The 2011 Budget Control Act triggered $85 billion in federal spending cuts on March 1. The cuts are split between defense and non-defense programs over seven months. Fran Forman, the commission’s executive director, says the sequester slashed $30,000 from CAC’s Healthy at Home program budget and will result in layoffs down the road. (Even Meals on Wheels will have to reduce the number of days it delivers meals to compensate for its loss of federal support.)
The cuts also mean CAC will be feeding 27 fewer indigent elderly throughout the county by October, says Forman. “[The Healthy at Home program] is not [financially] feasible for us,” she says. “But it’s so important. It’s lifesaving.”
The CAC asks for $3 donations per meal but the seniors it serves pay an average of 80 cents. The program ran a deficit last year partially because it’s been difficult to attract private funding—people are more willing to invest in youth than the elderly, Forman says.
“Do we have no obligation to people whose human value we measure as somehow less because they are less of an investment in the future?” she says.
Navarro worries that his job is in jeopardy. The Santa Barbara native attended Santa Barbara High School, took classes at Santa Barbara City College and worked in accounting at the CAC. He has been delivering food throughout Santa Barbara County for the Healthy at Home program for more than a year. He also works nights and weekends at the Hi Time Stop & Shop liquor store off of Calle Real to help support his parents. Navarro once had aspirations to play professional soccer but has always felt an obligation to help provide for his family.
“I love this job,” he says. “I’m meeting new people every day and am able to help them out. It’s nice to talk and interact with them. Lots of people don’t have help from family so their only option is us.”
Bellant’s husband passed away more than 30 years ago and her son also died young. Even though he’s running behind schedule, Navarro asks Bellant if she needs help with any chores before leaving her and Coco. Navarro is family now.
“Thank you, mijo,” Bellant says to Navarro as he turns toward his truck to finish his route.