"Public hearings are being held throughout the state so people have an opportunity to express their ideas about how Missouri can better serve the senior citizens in the senior programs offered," said State Rep. Ellen Brandom, who serves as vice-chair of the Missouri House of Representatives Interim Committee on Senior Nutrition.
The final hearing will begin at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday at the Sikeston Senior OAKS Center, 305 Cresap St., in Sikeston.
The committee was created by the House Speaker Rod Jetton to look into health and wellness issues related to senior citizens in Missouri and the funding mechanism for regional Area Agencies on Aging and the Meals on Wheels program.
Brandom said the committee has met in several locations and many of the concerns are the same: a lack of funding and lack of volunteers.
"One of the things this committee is going to look at is the funding formula," Brandom said. "The way the formula is done, St. Louis gets more money than we do even though we (Southeast Missouri region) serve more meals."
The state funds federal money to the state's 10 Area Agencies on Aging is based on a formula. Some of the state formula's components include population, low income and minorities. It's also calculated by a point system.
Over the past several years a lack of funding at all levels has put senior nutrition centers in a very tight crunch. For instance, in 2005, homemade food for Sikeston Senior OAKS Center was replaced by prepackaged goods and contributed to a decline in daily attendance.
Sikeston Senior OAKS administrator YuVone Craig was forced to cut people from the homebound meals program. Today 80 people receive homebound meals compared to the average of 200 a few years ago, she said.
"I'm hoping this will be a good turnaround for our senior nutrition program," Craig said about the hearing. "Hopefully, more people will become involved and see the need and help meet that need."
Craig said 50 percent of the Sikeston center's funding comes from the state; the rest is earned through donations or fundraisers.
"In Sikeston, at our senior center, we are working very hard to make ends meet, and the reason they don't have a terrible deficit now is because the Missouri Foundation for Health is keeping its doors open (through a grant)," Brandom said.
Brandom noted the center would have a $25,000 deficit if it didn't have the grant, which will end.
Craig said she expects senior citizens and nutrition center administrators from East Prairie, Charleston, Chaffee, Kennett and other areas to attend the hearing.
"We are asking (those who attend the hearings) about the meals and a lot of services they get there, such as advice on tax and finances. We're very interested in assisting the senior citizens age quadrant," said State Rep. Steve Hodges, adding flu shots and blood pressure checks are also services provided at senior centers.
Hodges, who is also a committee member, said there are over 30 nutrition centers in the Southeast Missouri region. A couple of them were forced to shut down due to a lack of funds, he said.
Sari Kersey, administrator of the East Prairie nutrition center, said she hopes committee members will get a perspective of the importance of senior citizens.
"They're the biggest part of our commun
ity. Over 50 percent of the population will be senior citizens in the very near future, and there will be a big demand on the communities," Kersey said.
The East Prairie center currently serves meals to about 100 people at its center, and 140 meals are delivered to homes daily in East Prairie.
Mississippi County has a senior citizen sales tax, which is divided between the Charleston and East Prairie nutrition centers, and a certain percentage also goes to county transit and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. Although this extra money helps, the center must still hold regular fundraisers.
Dorothy Smith, 71, of East Prairie said she plans to attend the hearing Tuesday. After suffering a brain aneurism 16 years ago, Smith was left disabled -- but she has been volunteering at the East Prairie center twice a week for the past 11 years.
"This center is a blessing to me," Smith said.
Center activities offered include crafts, quilting and dominoes, Smith said, calling it a good well-rounded program.
"The program has more than one benefit, and it benefits so many different people in different ways. The Missouri Legislature should look at helping provide more financial assistance," Smith said.
In addition to providing a nutritious meal for senior citizens, the center also provides a chance for seniors to socialize and to fellowship, Smith said.
"When you eat a meal alone, you don't really enjoy it," Smith said. "... You can come in and eat a good meal for $2.50. It's a good program because seniors get out of the house, and it gives them a reason to get up and get dressed in the morning."
Those who receive homebound meals receive at least one nutritious meal a day and they get to see someone, Smith said.
"They have this one contact, but they always look forward to the meal variety and just to say hello and talk to somebody," Smith said.
Also with in-home care and Meals on Wheels, these seniors can stay in their home longer before going into a nursing home, Smith said.
"If the government would look at it, it's cheaper to pay for a meal and home keeper than it is to pay for you when you're put in a nursing home," Smith said. "You would have better satisfied seniors, and they would still be within the community."
Brandom said the committee will have a final meeting Nov. 30 and then make their recommendations to the Speaker.