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Lake Region group seeks help for seniors’ meals, cites statewide funding shortage

A nonprofit group providing meals for elderly residents in the Lake Region could run out of money by November and it’s now asking for help from state legislators and county commissioners in the region.

Senior Meals and Services, based in Devils Lake, says in a letter this week to those officials that it must come up with more than $16,000 to continue providing meals during the last few weeks of the year. That’s enough for about 4,000 meals.

The letter asks legislators in Districts 14, 15 and 23 to work together to increase funding for the state Human Service Department’s Adult Aging Services program in the 2015 legislative session.

“We struggle to keep our doors open,” said Barry Gage, a Devils Lake resident and former Ramsey County commissioner who is president of Senior Meals and Services.

The program also provides meals in Benson, Eddy and Towner counties.

Not enough money

The problem is that the state reimbursement is not enough to cover the cost of the meals, Gage said. While it’s a statewide problem, it is much more acute in rural areas, he said.

In 2013, the state reimbursed the Lake Region program $4 for each meal either served on-site or home-delivered — the program is commonly called Meals on Wheels — for a total of 29,168 meals in the two programs. However, the local agency actually served 33,232 meals.

The legislature raised the reimbursement to $4.15 for this year, but that will not be enough to fund the program, according to Cathy Saele-Odendaal, program director.

“We’ve already served 17 percent of the contacted meals and we’re only 9 percent through the year,” she said. “Last year, we ran out in November. The way we’re sitting right now, it’ll probably be the same.”

‘Feeding Grandma’

A study conducted in 2012 for North Dakota Senior Service Providers indicated that the cost of a senior meal had increased by a total of 29 percent over the previous five years. The study, “Feeding Grandma,” was done in advance of the 2013 legislative session.

In Fiscal Year 2011, more than 80,000 meals statewide received no federal or state funding, according to the study.

The percentage of North Dakotans age 85 and older increased 13.3 percent, between 2000 and 2010, and the percentage 90 and older grew by 23.4 percent, according to a 2012 study done for NDSSP. 

In 2010, the state had 133,350 residents 60 and older. Of that number, 16,688 were at least 85 and 6,505 were at least 90.

In its study, NDSSP concluded, in part, that increasing state funding for basic senior nutrition programs is a good investment.

“I think we should go on the basis that if we serve this many meals, we should be reimbursed for those meals,” Gage said. “There’s a lot of people who depend on those meals.”

Raising money

Since 2009, the Lake Region Senior Meals and Services program has been able to offset the funding deficit by using profits from a separate program — providing meals for inmates at the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center.

While Senior Meals and Services is a non-profit group, it paid federal and state income taxes on the law enforcement center program profits, according to the letter.

However, the program lost that contract to a Devils Lake restaurant this year, according to Gage.

The Senior Meals group also conducts annual fund-raising events to support the local program.

Volunteers bake pies and other items to be sold at two annual events — a sweet shop in December and a pie festival, which is currently under way.

The most recent sweet shop event raised about $4,000, Saele-Odendaal said. If all of the pies sell, that event should raise another $4,000 to $5,000.

Rep. Curt Hofstad, R-Devils Lake, vice chairman of the House human services committee, said the senior meals problem is part of a larger financial issue the state faces with a growing elderly population.

“I know we will certainly take a hard look at it,” he said. “Any time you go to legislature, the first question asked is what kind of local buy in there is. It has to be a partnership between local entities and the state.”

Kevin Bonham

Kevin Bonham covers regional news, mostly from northeast North Dakota, for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for more than 30 years. Find his articles at: He welcomes story ideas via email,, or by phone, (701) 780-1110.  

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