Seven months after federal sequestration cuts forced the Waterville area’s Meals on Wheels program to scale back its program to feed seniors who have trouble getting out, full service has been restored, program administrators said.

In March, seniors who called for immediate help were instead put on a waiting list by Spectrum Generations, which delivers 300,000 meals each year to homebound seniors in 128 communities in six counties as part of a national Meals on Wheels program.

The $85,600 cuts also caused Spectrum to scale back its twice-weekly visits to seniors, taking them a week’s worth of frozen meals during a single trip instead.

On Tuesday the organization was able to reset the list to zero and reinstate its twice-weekly deliveries, according to Debra Silva, vice president at Spectrum, which provides a variety of services.

Meals on Wheels serves 200 people a day from Waterville’s Muskie Center and 800 people a day to homebound seniors in communities throughout Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Sagahadoc, Somerset and Waldo counties.

Silva said the cost of feeding 800 people a day is a tipping point relative to how many resources Spectrum has to run the program.

“We don’t know if we can sustain it,” Silva said.

Every time the phone rings and it’s a donor wanting to support the cause, the cushion is extended.

Every time the phone rings and it’s a person needing help, it takes the organization a little closer to the edge.

In the meantime, continued effects of the sequestration and the threat of a protracted federal government shutdown combine to make the future of the program uncertain.

The shutdown won’t affect Meals on Wheels in the short term because of the timing of its federal payments, she said. If the gridlock in Washington continues for another month, however, funding would become an issue, Silva said.

The sequestration will take an additional $39,000 from the program, which is funded under the federal Older Americans Act, in its current budget cycle, which began Oct. 1, making the total loss more than $122,000.

When the sequestration cuts hit the program in March, the tipping point was unbalanced, and the program began running at a deficit.

The waiting list, imposed in an effort to restore the balance, grew quickly, reaching 36 in the first six weeks at centers Spectrum operates in Hallowell, Skowhegan and Waterville.

By mid-September, the waiting list was 170.

One of the first people to be put on the waiting list was Marie Rouleau, an 84-year-old Waterville resident.

An active, independent woman who lives by herself, Rouleau broke her neck during a fall. She was left unable to lift a chicken, cut vegetables or bend to take things out of the oven.

In early March, reduced to a diet of pre-packaged sandwiches and soup and worried about her nutrition, she called Spectrum, only to learn that it could not help.

Rouleau said she received a call recently from Spectrum offering to take her off the list, but in the interim, a solution presented itself.

Rouleau said that a woman who read about Rouleau’s plight in the Morning Sentinel visited one day and has been bringing Rouleau meals ever since.

“Now I’ve got a new friend,” she said.

Rouleau’s solution was the exception, not the rule. When Spectrum staff called the 170 people on the waiting list, only a handful no longer needed help, according to Chris Teague, the nutrition director for the program.

FEDERAL CUTS PROMPT RESPONSE

Spectrum was able to make those calls to those on the waiting list only after an intensive round of fundraising and cost reductions.

Teague said the program was able to find ways to operate for less by rethinking delivery routes and seeking better ongoing relationships with local farmers and food banks.

Teague said he is motivated constantly to seek other cost-saving ways that will give the program more leeway.

Silva credited increased local fundraising with filling much of the gap created by the federal funding cuts.

“Sequestration is a negative, but the community is a huge positive,” Silva said.

The annual Sukeforth Family Pig Roast and Auction raised $38,000, a charity golf tournament raised $12,000 and a celebrity cooking challenge in Bath raised $13,000.

Spectrum also funds the program internally with money from its catering and home care divisions. Media coverage of the crisis also helped to drive unsolicited donations to the program, Silva said.

Silva said the Meals on Wheels program not only improves the lives of the people it serves directly, but it also saves communities because it allows seniors to live in their homes longer, preventing them from becoming a burden on society.

“It keeps them home and out of emergency rooms and out of health care facilities that cost them more,” she said.

Silva said volunteers who deliver the food are also trained to look for signs that seniors’ conditions or capabilities may be deteriorating, allowing for early interventions that can prevent a crisis. This service, coupled with the social interaction that the volunteers provide, is part of what makes the twice-weekly visits important, she said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:[email protected]