Orange County officials publicly questioned last week if older adults would go hungry if they don’t spend federal COVID bailout dollars on a nonprofit that supports seniors – one that’s far behind its original goals.
“It looks like it’s going to be a reluctant – I’ll speak for myself and Supervisor (Katrina) Foley at least – a reluctant aye,” OC Board of Supervisors Chair Don Wagner said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Supervisors unanimously approved a $585,812 year-long contract with Age Well Senior Service for an elderly nutritional program, transportation services, in-home care for elderly and more.
County staff say Age Well is expected to meet their targeted goals, yet the service provider is far behind on their goals of feeding and transporting South OC elderly residents for medical care in a previous county contract, according to a staff performance report.
It drew the ire of Wagner.
“This is not our first rodeo with Age Well. Why would you bring us an Age Well contract?” Wagner questioned county staffers. “Are people going to go hungry, if we deny Age Well another drink at the trough of public money?”
County staff said yes.
“You’re going to put us in a position that we have to say yes to this particular vendor with whom we have experience at the risk of our public. That is a horrible position for you to put us in,” Wagner said.
Supervisor Katrina Foley questioned Tuesday what would happen if they did not contract with Age Well. Staff said money would have to be returned to the state and the county would have difficulty finding additional money to support feeding older adults in OC.
Foley and Supervisor Doug Chaffee said they would support the contract because they don’t want a gap in services for seniors.
“It’s a very vulnerable population. Anyone who has gone and sat with the seniors and had lunch at the senior centers knows that it’s very much needed that they receive those meals,” she said.
It comes months after a significant decrease in monthly public food benefits for some of OC’s poorest residents.
The decision also comes months into a projected food cliff in Orange County that makes it harder for residents like seniors to feed themselves following a steep decrease in food benefits with the end of the Covid emergency and higher food costs.
Claudia Keller, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank, said in a Thursday phone interview that the food cliff is real and the need for food in OC remains high.
“We definitely saw an upturn when the COVID era of benefits were discontinued in the spring. We’ve continued to see an elevated need, particularly among families and among seniors in the county,” she said.
Steve Moyer, CEO for Age Well, said it has heavily impacted seniors in OC, but did not answer questions on falling behind on their goals.
“The food cliff has had a significant impact on seniors in Orange County. Inflation and increased cost of living impacts seniors on fixed incomes tremendously,” he said in an email.
As of June, Age Well has delivered less than half of the 20,720 congregate meals at senior centers they promised to deliver by Sept. 30 2023 using federal Covid bailout dollars, according to a County performance metric report.
That same report also shows that as of June 2023, the nonprofit hasn’t delivered a single home meal out of the 90,599 meals they promised to deliver using federal Covid dollars by Sept. 30.
Still, county staff expect Age Well to meet their target goal and say the nonprofit didn’t use any of the federal money to deliver home meals yet because they were using other funding.
They also say Age Well began using much of the Covid money in July 2023.
“Their performance level has increased and is expected to reach contracted goals,” reads a staff report.
According to the Age Well website, the nonprofit has delivered over half a million meals to seniors’ homes and over 69,000 lunches to senior centers in 2022.
Keller said groups like Age Well and Meal on Wheels OC in North Orange County bring medically tailored meals to seniors that can’t leave home or in group settings that allows older adults to socialize.
She said the model these groups adopted are absolutely vital, especially during the pandemic.
“It was difficult during the pandemic, especially for seniors that were either homebound, immunocompromised, perhaps living alone and didn’t have a network at that moment,” she said. “It is absolutely critical during downturns.”
Keller said during the pandemic Second Harvest had to get volunteers to deliver to homes and senior centers – something Age Well and Meals on Wheels are well suited to do and have done for a long time.
“But when the need spikes, it just adds on top of what you’re already planning on. I think that’s what we learned during COVID,” she said. “The financial resources are key to be able to establish the right volunteer and transportation and delivery infrastructure.”
Moyer said they’re “perpetually” raising money to ensure meals for older adults.
“Meeting the needs of Orange County seniors requires a mix of public and private sources such as government contracts, corporate sponsors, foundations, philanthropic gifts, fundraising events and community support,” he wrote.
County supervisors also unanimously approved a up to $233,479 year long contract with St. Jude Hospital for caregiver services. The hospital is well on track to meet their caregiver goals with previous federal dollars directed to them from the county, according to the staff report.
OC Seniors Face Food Insecurity
Earlier this year, food banks across the state and locally warned that California’s most vulnerable residents were heading for a food cliff amid historic inflation and a decrease in food benefits at the end of the State’s emergency declaration over the COVID-19 pandemic.
They projected some households across the Golden State would go from getting almost $300 in food assistance a month to $23.
Local food banks leaders also made it clear that the people most dramatically affected and hit hardest would be seniors – a population that is expected to surge in OC in the upcoming decades.
As of July, over 294,100 people are enrolled in CalFresh – food stamp benefits for low income families – in Orange County, according to a state database.
Currently, about 16% of OC’s 3.2 million residents are 65-years and older, according to the census.
In recent years, OC senior enrollment in the program has increased from over 54,000 people in June 2021 to over 77,000 people in January of this year with help from a public awareness campaign, according to food bank leaders.
According to the county’s strategic plan for aging, the food insecurity rate for low income adults aged 65 and older pre-pandemic was roughly 30% – with Black and Latino households experiencing two to three times the nutrition insecurity compared to white households.
Between 113,000 to 200,000 older OC adults may not be getting enough to eat due to economic reasons, according to the Report on Aging in Orange County 2022.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Since you’ve made it this far,
You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford, but it’s not free to produce. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.