Every weekday noon hour a group of area residents gather at the Blue Earth Senior Center for a hot meal and some interesting conversation.
It is one of 225 Senior Nutrition programs operated in 39 counties across Minnesota by Lutheran Social Service (LSS).
But, come Dec. 31, the Senior Center site in Blue Earth will be one of 25 in Greater Minnesota LSS will shut down. The other Faribault County sites in Wells, Elmore and Winnebago, are not on the list of 25 to be cut and will remain operating.
LSS is encouraging Blue Earth seniors to dine at the sites in Winnebago or Elmore or consider other local meal options such as Meals on Wheels or local restaurants.
The city of Blue Earth has other ideas, however. The Senior Center staff and board of directors want to find a way to continue to serve meals at the center. "This is sometimes the only hot meal some of these seniors have each day," says Linda Jahnke, assistant Senior Center director. She is filling in as interim director while Middy Thomas is on medical leave. "But it is more than just the meal. It is a chance for some of them to get out of their homes and socialize with others."
City administrator Kathy Bailey agrees it is important to keep the program going.
"In 2012, we served 5,251 meals at the center," she says. "As of the end of October this year we were at 3,832 meals. It is a service that is well used."
The costs for continuing the program without outside help is the issue, however.
"The Senior Center board is meeting soon and will look at other options to continue to serve meals here," Bailey says. "We are getting some bids in to see what the costs will be."
The kitchen at the Senior Center is not equipped to prepare the meals on site. Currently Lutheran Social Services contracts with Parker Oaks in Winnebago and the food is delivered in hot containers and plated and served by volunteers at the center.
"Continuing with Parker Oaks is just one of the options we are looking at," Bailey says. "We are getting other quotes as well. We also need to look at how to fund it."
Currently seniors pay $3.85 for each meal, unless their income is low enough to qualify for a free meal. That money goes to LISSIE to help support the program.
There is another large financial hit for Blue Earth and the Senior Center budget for 2014.
Lutheran Social Services pays the city for use of the Senior Center as a Senior Nutrition meal site.
This year that amount is $8,400.
"It is a definite hit to the budget," says Bailey. "It makes it a dollar amount issue."
LISSIE says the decision of which sites to close was not made lightly.
"We've experienced a triple whammy in Senior Nutrition," explains Monica Douglas, director of Senior Nutrition for LSS. "We've had to make some difficult decisions that will be especially felt in greater Minnesota."
The problem is having federal grants not keeping up with population changes or covering the rise in food costs. Financial cuts from sequestration combined with shortfalls in local revenues have made the cuts necessary, LSS says.
Douglas says in all instances LSS worked with the local Area Agency on Aging and considered several factors in making the joint decision, including the availability of other meal options in the area, number of seniors using the service, and whether services were reaching seniors that are in most need.
Meanwhile, LSS says they are meeting with policymakers to help them understand the impact cuts are having on seniors.
"With the coming 'age wave' it will be important for us as a community to come together to find creative and affordable ways to keep seniors healthy and living independently," Douglas says. "Building on successful programs like Senior Nutrition can offer enormous social and financial benefit to us all."
Meanwhile LSS is contacting seniors to offer other options in the community, as well as thank all the volunteers who have worked in the program.
Senior Nutrition is funded in part with federal funds from the Older Americans Act and state funding that is distributed through the Department of Human Services, Minnesota Board on Aging and local Area Agency on Aging.
Additional financial support is provided by site sponsorships, United Way, contributions from participants and discretionary funds through Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota.