When rumors began circulating last week that changes were coming to the Senior Lunch Program (a.k.a. Elderly Nutrition Program) administered for Inyo and Mono Counties by Inyo County Health and Human Services (HHS), many seniors began contacting local news media and their County Supervisors.
Fears ranged from loss of communal dining at the local senior centers to job loss for the kitchen staff, who many seniors enjoy seeing each day.
In response, HHS Director Jean Turner and Sheriff Bill Lutze scheduled a meeting in Lone Pine on Jan. 28 to address the fears stemming from the rumors, almost all of which were unfounded. While changes in the senior lunch program are in fact being looked at, according to both Turner and Lutze, that is a far stretch from actually being implemented.
Under the title of Service Redesign, the Inyo County, along with other partners including the City of Bishop, Mono County, Town of Mammoth Lakes, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forestry Service, Inyo County Office of Education, and the Toiyabe Indian Health Project, are working together to find ways to continue to provide services to the public in the face of continuing budget cuts … and in some instances, looming budget deficits.
A combination of streamlining services by consolidation, eliminating duplication of services, and working partnerships that share both information and even equipment, are being looked at carefully both collectively and within individual departments, counties, cities and towns, and other agencies
The Senior Lunch Program itself is an example of a “shared service or program” between Inyo and Mono counties, and it has resulted in cost savings through consolidation and streamlining of administration. It has allowed greatly reduced costs even as funding for the service has dropped from $1.1 million to $700,000.
The Inyo County Board of Supervisors has strongly supported the program, subsidizing the continued shortfall to the tune of over $325,000 per year using discretionary funds from the County General Fund. Mono County reimburses expenses associated with funding for its senior lunches.
The discussion on Jan. 28 fell short for some seniors. As local Lone Pine artist Buck Grace put it, “Food is personal. You don’t mess with that.”
Unlike most Senior Lunch Programs in the state, Inyo and Mono Counties are one of the few remaining that still cook hot meals.
Food insecurity is a serious concern for Inyo and Mono County seniors, many of whom are living on low, fixed incomes. Seniors also fear the loss of socialization with other seniors and lunch program staff, or less food, which would result in packaged meals that have to be re-heated.
Seniors questioned whether other avenues for funding the Lunch Program are being explored, such as considering cuts to the “high pay of county department heads,” “controlling the cost of transportation for county employees assigned county vehicles,” and “the county making up losses through grants and donations.” Both Turner and Lutze assured the group that “everything is on the table” and there are “no sacred cows.”
However, the county is looking at the possible savings should senior lunches be cooked at a centralized location, specifically the County Jail, although other avenues, such as the local hospital or schools, are also being considered. Yet even this option “is only something that is being looked at and it is far from decided,” said Turner and Lutze.
Turner and Lutze said that they are serving on one of six or eight different workshop groups with elected officials and department heads looking at 40-50 different ideas that may save money and trim looming deficits.
Other subjects such as transportation, utility costs, and really anything that might provide savings throughout the county, are being investigated.
Earlier on Jan. 28, Turner spoke to the Board of Supervisors, providing them with several documents which broke out the numbers and costs of providing congregate (seniors that eat hot meals together at local county facilities) and home-delivered meals. Turner provided these same documents to seniors at the afternoon meeting in Lone Pine.
Turner explained that there is a misunderstanding on exactly what the County Service Redesign program is about, and that no decisions have been reached. She explained that she is a “fact gatherer” and not the “decision-maker.”
“In the end,” Turner explained, “it will be up to the County Board of Supervisors to make decisions on how county funds are spent and whether or not any recommendations or ideas be adopted.”