It takes more than bake sales to feed the elderly

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``Everybody knows this country's rich enough to bring old people one $3 meal a day,'' says Marcia Stein, executive director of Citymeals. But with increasing demands on services like Citymeals, and decreasing federal funds to do the job, this obvious truism of the '60s and '70s seems to be becoming an anachronism in the mid-'80s.

In a recent study of services for the elderly in 32 US communities, 70 percent of the nutrition agencies contacted had an increase in clients age 75 to 84. One reason for the increase: stricter medicare guidelines that return hospital patients to their homes when they may still need care, says Dr. Carroll Estes, director of the Institute for Health & Aging at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of the study.

Even now, the programs are not serving everyone who is eligible. ``The waiting lists are extensive all over the state -- all over the country in fact,'' says Renee Mahler of a Detroit Meals on Wheels program, which is just about to institute a private program along the same lines as Citymeals.

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The planned cuts in the federal budget will affect some Meals on Wheels programs more than others, because every community has its own individual program, and funding sources vary. In New York, for instance, city money will fill in, at least for the first year. ``Of course if there are subsequent cuts, [Mayor Edward Koch] may not be able to make up the difference,'' says Ms. Stein.

Meals on Wheels of San Francisco was completely privately funded until 1980. The organization's founder and executive director, Dorrwin B. Jones, remembers cooking and delivering the first five meals himself back in '71. Now he oversees a staff of 42 and a $1.2 million budget. ``There was a big fuss when the government got involved. Many directors really preferred to be private,'' he says. ``But it has been beneficial. It enabled us to stabilize and greatly expand.''

But as wonderful and helpful as a voluntary program can be, it can never be the whole answer for a big city. Says Mr. Jones: ``You can't continue to grow and pay for everything with bake sales.''

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