CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kaneohe resident Sumiko Sakamoto, 83, prepared to eat a meatball lunch yesterday delivered to her by Meals on Wheels. Sakamoto, who is legally blind, is one of 200 individuals who may be cut from the food program due to lack of funding. CLICK FOR LARGE
Rough road for Meals on Wheels
The senior aid food service charity program is set for belt tightening
At 83, Sumiko Sakamoto spends most of her lunches alone in her little apartment in Kaneohe while her daughter is away at work. Though she's legally blind, she flicks on a table lamp as her lunch spins around in her old microwave.
Every lunch is a surprise and a gift, thanks to Lanakila Rehabilitation Center's Meal on Wheels, which delivers healthy meals to homebound seniors. Yesterday, Sakamoto had meatballs with green peas for lunch. Today could be macaroni and cheese.
HOW TO HELP
» Volunteer to pack, drive or deliver meals.
» Adopt-A-Senior. To feed a senior costs $6.50 for one day; $130 for one month; $1,560 for a year.
» Donations of any amount are welcomed.
Contact Lanakila Rehabilitation Center's Meals on Wheels program:
1809 Bachelot St.
Honolulu, HI 96817
But in a couple of weeks, with Lanakila's Meals on Wheels program preparing to cut meals for more than 200 seniors if state funding falls short, lunches for Sakamoto could be dinner leftovers or Whoppers from Burger King.
When Remy Rueda, the program's director, heard this upcoming fiscal year's budget is $238,000 less than last year's, she thought of how she'd break the bad news to those who depend on her.
"I immediately thought about those seniors who are going to be hungry," she said. "Those seniors who live alone, who have low income and don't have any means of support for themselves. I have a lot of seniors that are counting on me."
Since last year, the program had to stop delivering meals to hundreds of seniors because of funding shortages. In July 2006, they were serving 1,039 seniors; that dropped to 727 seniors currently.
If they can't find funding, through the state or more aggressive fundraising, to make up for the $238,000, they'll have to cut 233 more clients. More than 250 people are on the waiting list.
Rueda already is prioritizing who to cut. Those who have higher income -- more than $1,000 a month -- and those who live with spouses or children likely will be the first to go.
Gov. Linda Lingle has until June 25 to veto or until July 10 to sign Senate Bill 1916 into law, which would provide a total of $1 million to the state's kupuna care programs over the next two years. From there, the counties allocate money to individual programs, and a chunk of money could trickle down to Lanakila's Meals on Wheels.
In a similar bill passed last year, Lanakila's Meals on Wheels received $100,000, said Karen Miyake, the county executive on aging in the city's Elderly Affairs Division.
The rest of the $238,000 was from state or federal money that has since been used up, Miyake said.
"It's a wonderful, important and critical program that serves our kupuna that have very few resources on getting wholesome meals," said Susan Jackson, the state Department of Health's deputy director. "I don't think there's any argument on any level -- state or county -- that this is one program deserving of funding."
If they can't make up the funding decrease, Rueda said seniors could be losing two precious gifts: a healthful meal and companionship.
For many seniors, volunteers coming to drop off hot meals daily or frozen meals weekly are their only personal interaction.
Last year, Sakamoto accidentally spilled boiling water on her left thigh while she was making tea. One volunteer, Jerry, was making his weekly stop at her house that Wednesday morning.
He gave her an ice pack, she remembers, and promised to return after he finished his other delivers.
True to his word, Jerry returned about 1 p.m. and told Sakamoto she was going to be just fine.
"It was so comforting," Sakamoto said. "I told him, 'I don't know what I would have done without you, Jerry.' "