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How Sequestration Threatens Austin's Most Vulnerable Seniors

Little by little, the effects of sequestration are becoming more tangible in the everyday lives of some Americans. And though the federal government has reinstated some agencies’ funds, cuts are coming to the programs destined to feed some of the country’s most vulnerable adults.

But there’s at least one Austin non-profit that’s looking for ways to keep feeding adults in need.

The kitchen of Meals on Wheels and More opens for business at 3 a.m. every day. Food director John Harvath cranks up the machines and the process begins. About a dozen people fast on their feet put together three thousand meals.

Harvath’s title doesn’t exempt him from being hands on. As he talks, his hands never stop moving. He puts slices of bread in individual bags.

“So, we are getting some of our stew tomatoes ready, we are getting bread ready, we’ll be doing calico coleslaw,” Harvath says.

Other people serve the food into individual trays. A separate team puts the trays through a conveyor belt. The systematic “swish” and “stomp” leaves the trays sealed, stamped and ready to go.

While touring the facility, Harvath tells me they start so early because by lunchtime, thousands of volunteers will pick up the food and deliver it, still hot, to homebound Austinites. Some are elderly and frail. Others live with disabilities.

In the same building, but down a long corridor, the non-profit’s president awaits me. His name is Dan Pruitt. He greets me cheerfully. But his cheerfulness quickly disappears as we talk. He tells me this year Meals on Wheels and More will be short $180,000 due to sequestration.

Pruitt says “cutting the money is bad enough,” but, he’s just learned that there’s another problem, “and [the] problem is that funding, even though it’s been cut is not being really made available at this time to the states to pass down to the programs that provide the meals.”

Normally, by the end of April, the federal government would have already sent states their yearly allocation of funds. But the money has yet to arrive. Cecilia Cavuto with the Texas Department of Aging and Disability, the group that distributes funds to twenty-eight area service providers, says the state is looking for ways to bridge the approximately $5.5 million gap.

“Our agency has identified savings in central administrative costs that have allowed us to release approximately $4.8 million so that [agencies] can continue to provide services such as home delivered meals," Cavuto says.

For its part, Meals and Wheels and More is looking for ways to supplement its income. This past week, Thad Rosenfeld spoke to a group of college students at ACC. He is the non-profit’s Communication’s Director.

Rosenfeld started his presentation by talking about the non-profit’s mission. He ended it with a movie about the lives of his clients. By spreading the word about the non-profit, he hopes to recruit more volunteers and, maybe, even bring in some donations. The students showed interest in helping out. Some thought their best donation wouldn’t be good enough.

“You know? It’s amazing,” Rosenfeld said, “Some people, they are reticent to give because they think, ‘you know what? I can only afford to give $10. Well, as I mentioned earlier, it costs us $2.39 to purchase the ingredients to prepare and package a meal. If you give $10, I mean, there’s four meals right there.”

Meals on Wheels’ president Pruitt is also thinking of strategies to bridge the gap left by sequestration. He recently found inspiration from one of his clients who is a homebound Korean War Vet.

“I tell you [my client] fed my soul," Pruitt said. "He fed my soul. What we find out every day, and our volunteers will tell you this, that they get so much more from [the visits] than they feel they deliver.”

Pruitt’s focus now is making sure none of his clients loses any services. He is accepting donations on his website,

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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