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Belts tightening at Solon’s Old Gold Diner

SOLON– “It’s all dollars and cents, folks.”
Susan Wehr, executive director of Elder Services Inc. of Iowa City, was addressing a group gathered in the sanctuary of the Solon United Methodist Church.
Through the doors behind them in the fellowship hall, volunteers were preparing the day’s congregate meal, a federally-funded, locally organized nutrition and social program for seniors.
Solon’s Old Gold Diner receives its meals through Elder Services, and Wehr was there to address an immediate 20 percent cut being felt by a seven-county area. The drop in funding has forced Elder Services to layoff staff and reduce its meal offerings.
The net result for Solon’s senior dining program could be the loss of not only its site manager, but the style in which the food is served.
And its local volunteers are now in a scurry to find money to pay for on-site staff.
The meeting was held Tuesday, Oct. 9, but Wehr and representatives of the local program had also met Friday the week before with Ingrid Wensel, executive director of The Heritage Agency, which funnels funds from the Older Americans Act to regional non-profits like Elder Services.
Friday was where the news had been delivered. By Tuesday, the supporters of Solon Senior Dining were scrambling to figure out a solution.
“We learned some startling facts– that our program is going to change,” Art Tellin explained at the beginning of the meeting. Tellin, president of the Old Gold Diner’s site council, turned the floor over to Wehr, and the group began to discuss options.
Wehr said The Heritage Agency’s new contract with Elder Services cuts about 12,000 meals from Johnson County’s senior dining sites, from 72,000 in the previous year to 60,000.
Four staff were laid off at the end of June, and now once-a-week congregate meals in North Liberty and Coralville have been closed, she said. Another site, at the Emerson Point senior housing facility in Iowa City, has been converted to a private-pay system.
Solon’s dining site served or delivered 18.41 meals per day in July and August, Wehr said, with 13.5 eating at the congregate site.
Elder Services has provided Solon with site manager, Mary Barta, which has cost about $900 a month. Eliminating the position could provide another 200 meals a month regionally, she said.
“This is what it boils down to,” she continued.
All Elder Services can afford for Solon under the new constraints, she said, would be one hour of staff time a day.
Those present in the group of 16 questioned whether the cuts were being shared, and a new emphasis on meal delivery. They asked about the cost per meal and the overall cost to Elder Services for the Solon program.
“Here’s my dilemma, and I know it’s Ingrid’s dilemma, too,” she said. “If anybody’s got a great idea, I know we want to hear it.” If there are two people to feed, and one is an isolated shut-in, “Who do I feed?”
If Solon’s site loses its site manager, it also loses the way the meals are served at the congregate site.
Currently, the meals are transported to Solon in insulated containers, and portions of food are served onto diners’ plates by volunteers.
If no Elder Services staff person is present, meals would likely be served in pre-portioned, packaged plastic containers, similar to microwaveable frozen meals.
“When we’re here, it will be like being handed a TV dinner?” asked Pastor Carol Kress of the Methodist church.
Known as the “Oliver” system, it’s named for the company in Michigan which produces the equipment needed to package meals.
Wehr said The Heritage Agency has strongly recommended moving away from the styrofoam clamshell containers currently used for meal delivery. The plastic film-covered meals are completely sealed and stay warmer longer, she said, improving the meal integrity.
Together, they discussed the possibility of converting the site to private pay ($5 per meal) or subsidizing the meal costs with local contributions.
The best option in the end was pooling the one-hour of staffing from Elder Services with another hour to be paid for locally. Two hours per day for Solon would be enough to transport meals from Iowa City to Solon, help with the meal and do necessary paperwork. “If you have enough money for to subsidize for that second hour, great,” Wehr said.
And it would keep the meals served on a plate instead of a container.
The changes were supposed to take effect Monday, Wehr said, so there’s a lot to figure out, including who takes responsibility for handling reservations.
“We would probably have to rely pretty heavily on volunteers to help support this,” remarked Sandy Hanson, noting that two staff hours is not enough time to do everything that needs to be done.
“This program depending on volunteers makes me nervous unless we can recruit more people to become involved,” responded Tellin.
The staff person is expected to cost about $10.60 an hour to start, or a little shy of $3,000 a year for the local match.
“We aren’t going to solve problems today, but what I want to make sure is we have this program run this week and next week if we don’t have a person,” concluded Anna McAtee. “We need to figure out a way to make it all work until we get this something as happy as they’ll ever be with the system.”