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Senior meals programs in SE Minnesota hit by budget cuts

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From left, Roy Ask and Dave Dolalie enjoy a meal on Monday at the Houston Community Center. When federal budget cuts threatened to close the center's senior dining program, the town of Houston rallied to provide an alternative location.

HOUSTON — Every weekday for two years, Doug Kropelin has headed to the Houston Community Center at lunch time looking for a warm meal and company of good friends.

So when Semcac announced it planned to shutter its senior dining program in Houston and three other southeast Minnesota locations because of federal budget cuts, the 65-year-old was dismayed.

"Most of us are here because we know each other, and we talk about our friends," Kropelin said Monday while waiting for lunch to be served. "If we didn't have this, my only conversation would be between me and the boob tube."

But then came unexpected good news. Officials with the city of Houston and Valley View Healthcare & Rehab began working together on a solution.

"We just felt like we needed to step up to the plate here and make sure that these seniors are not going to go without a noon meal and without the socialization that comes with that," said Valley View CEO Deb Barnes.


So the senior care facility agreed to begin offering the seniors reduced-price lunches at Heritage Court Independent Living Facility. Those meals will be available seven days a week and on holidays. Barnes said it was a bit of a financial stretch to take over the program. Each meal costs $7 to prepare, but the facility is going to ask only for a minimum donation of $3.50 per senior.

"We're willing to do this as a community service," she said.

Last day

Seniors living in the other communities affected by the cuts are not so lucky. Today will be the last day seniors in Lewiston, Morristown and Wanamingo will be able to get a hot meal through the Semcac Senior Dining program. While the goal is to make home-delivered meals available to these seniors via the Meals on Wheels program, there no longer will be a place to gather as a group.

"I can't tell you the number of calls and the emails from family members asking, 'What can we do to keep these sites open?' and I am just not coming up with anything this time around. You just can't come up with that kind of money," said Deb Betthauser, Semcac's senior services director.

The dining program cut is the result of $97,000 in federal aid reductions that were part of the across-the-board-cuts known as sequestration. Betthauser said it's the largest cut to Semcac's senior dining program in its 40-year history. Semcac has provided the reduced-price meals at 58 cites across southeast Minnesota. The closures are expected to affect 89 seniors who have used these four locations in the past year. The cuts also mean four on-site managers who run the dining programs will lose their jobs.

Beyond nutrition

While making sure these seniors have access to a healthy meal is important, Betthauser said the program's benefits go beyond nutrition.


"The social aspect of the meal is almost more important to them than the food itself. Just getting up in the morning, getting dressed and having a reason to be out with people," she said.

That camaraderie among diners was on full display Monday at the Houston Community Center. Five seniors joked with each other over plates of steaming pork chow mein and glasses of milk. Among those who braved the bitter cold was 91-year-old Nadine Uren. She said news that the program had been cut came as quite a shock.

"I think everyone was surprised. I was," she said.

Uren said she is glad Valley View Healthcare & Rehab has agreed to start offering meals, and she plans to start going there in the new year.

Walz responds

First District DFL Rep. Tim Walz said in a statement he is deeply concerned about the senior dining program cuts.

"The closing of these senior meal programs is yet another example of the real-life negative impact sequestration has on people's lives," Walz said. "I will continue fighting to restore funding for these programs and replace the indiscriminate, across-the-board sequestration cuts with a smart, targeted approach that forces elected officials to do the job they were elected to do and make tough choices."

Marianne Zerbe, who has served as the temporary site manager for the Houston senior dining program, said she is grateful the community was able to come up with a solution.


"It's very valuable. The people come here because they want companionship," she said. "You can't just stop doing it. (The seniors) have a need, and we need to honor that need."

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