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Meals on Wheels receives massive donations following proposed budget cut. Will it matter?

Supporters of Meals on Wheels showered the organization with donations after its value became subject to debate amidst White House budget talks.

A Subaru owner shows support for Meals on Wheels.
PRNewsFoto/Subaru of America, Inc. | Caption

Following Thursday’s White House budget proposal release, Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that delivers food to elderly isolated or disabled citizens received more than $100,000 in donations over a two-day period.

This makes a dramatic influx of funding for the program, which serves 2.4 million Americans (including 500,000 veterans), relies heavily on volunteer drivers to get the hot meals to beneficiaries, and normally receives approximately $1,000 a day in donations.

The surge in contributions came after last week’s release of the White House budget proposal which includes a 17.9 percent cut for in federal funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, which according to Meals on Wheels, provides most of the organization’s government support, according to Reuters. Some local branches of Meals on Wheels are also reporting increases in both financial donations and interest in volunteering.

“We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good,” said Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s budget director, defending the considered cuts, as reported by The New York Times. “And Meals on Wheels sounds great – again, that’s a state decision to fund that particular portion to. But to take the federal money and give it to the states and say, ‘Look, we want to give you money for programs that don’t work’ – I can’t defend that anymore.”

While Meals on Wheels is a nonprofit organization and not a federal program, it quickly became one of the focal points of the projected effects of President Trump’s recent proposal, earning the name “Starvation budget” among the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

And though the organization’s 2015 financial statements show that such federal grants comprise only $250,000 annually or about 3 percent of the program’s total revenue, spokeswoman Jenny Bertolette told CNN that many of the overall 5,000 local branches rely on the government funding money to deliver the food. 

For example, according to Ms. Bertolette, community block grants provide about 30 percent of the overall budget for one branch outside of Detroit.

Although 85 percent of the organization’s financing comes from corporations, foundations ,and personal donations, the loss of government funding could have a devastating impact for individual Meals on Wheels subsidiaries, many of which rely on such funding to continue providing their services.

But Mr. Mulvaney raised questions about the effectiveness of the program as a whole.

The New York Times notes that Meals on Wheels has been the subject of numerous peer-reviewed medical studies and that a 2015 review showed that in fact 80 separate studies have been performed on programs providing services like Meals on Wheels.

Several of the studies caution that few of the examinations were randomized controlled trials and that even fewer focused on the overall program, leading to a potential need for further and more rigorous testing. Yet some of these same studies also found tangible positive results from organizations like Meals on Wheels.

A 2016 study showed that Meals on Wheels had a specific positive impact on alleviating loneliness for participants, while a 2013 study demonstrated that increased spending on similar programs allowed people to continue living at home when otherwise might not be possible, leading to a decreased reliance on institutionalized care.

Study results offer few definitive answers, however, as to how spending on programs like Meals on Wheels compares to other kinds of spending in terms of the most effective way to support America’s aging population.

A Meals on Wheels spokesperson says donations to the program’s national office will be spent on advocacy and awareness campaigns.

And certainly, there is a psychological boost that comes with the donations, which seem to attest both to the program's popularity and its perceived benevolence. "It's reassuring that the public has stepped up," says Patrick Rowan, executive director of Metro Meals in Minneapolis-St.Paul told CNN.

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