GIRARD — As more elderly people use federally funded meal home delivery service in Crawford County, making ends meet has become a serious challenge for those providing the essential “meals-on-wheels” service for homebound seniors.

Cindy Lane, director of the Southeast Kansas Area Agency on Aging (SEKAAA), spoke to the Crawford County Commission Friday to discuss the nonprofit organization’s financial woes.

“It’s beginning to be a crisis for us if we keep providing meals,” Lane said. “We have never had a wait list for meals in the past.”

If it can’t find a source of additional revenue, the SEKAAA will have to freeze delivery service through its nutrition program, which is largely funded by federal money that is administered through the state but requires local matching funds.

“I can’t bankrupt my agency for the meals program,” Lane said.

Including the cost of paying drivers to deliver them, each meal costs the SEKAAA about $11.

“It is through Older Americans Act funds so we cannot require a fee for this service,” said Stacy Dickerhoof, program manager for SEKAAA. “If they cannot pay for a meal, we cannot eliminate them from the program because they cannot.”

The requirements for funding of the program even go as far as dictating the wording of the “suggested donation” the SEKAAA asks for.

“One time we accidentally put the word ‘requested donation’ and the state said that’s too harsh of wording, you have to go back to ‘suggested,’” Dickerhoof said.

In addition to Crawford County, SEKAAA also serves Allen, Bourbon, Cherokee, Labette, Montgomery, Neosho, Wilson and Woodson counties, and the county government is not the only source of money to help the organization meet its requirements for matching federal funds.

Commissioner Bruce Blair pointed out that for elderly people who have some amount of mobility, there are also other resources in larger municipalities in the county.

“There’s other opportunities in Pittsburg,” Blair said. “You’ve got Lord’s Diner. That’s getting utilized all the time. It’s available for anyone — college kids included.”

In more rural areas, though, there are often less options to serve the needs of local senior citizens, Blair said. Dickerhoof said this is something officials in Topeka often do not understand — asking, for example, if the SEKAAA can use a local hospital or restaurant as a meal distribution site, when the community they’re talking about may not have either one.

“They don’t understand the rural — really rural — settings that we deal with,” Dickerhoof said.

Not having anywhere to distribute meals is not the only problem with giving out meals at a central location, rather than delivering them to elderly people’s homes.

“Meal sites at senior centers are almost becoming a thing of the past because the baby boomers are working longer, not going to senior centers, and then it seems like by the time they get to that point then they don’t want to go to a senior center yet, they’re not old yet,” Dickerhoof said. By the time elderly people want to take advantage of meal services, they are often homebound. “So the attendance at our senior centers is really low.”

Asked by Commissioner Jeremy Johnson whether meal delivery requests were increasing as meal service at senior centers declines, Dickerhoof said it was.

The demand for meal delivery is “going to continue to grow,” Blair said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

After discussing the challenges facing the meal delivery service with Lane and Dickerhoof, the commissioners further discussed possibilities for helping to fund the program.

Johnson said he would like to see more specifics in the application process for various agencies and organizations seeking county financial aid in terms of what the money will be spent on, what their needs are, how many people will be served, and similar considerations.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” said Commissioner Tom Moody. “Are you better off giving some more money and forget about the smaller ones, or do you try to spread it out to keep all the funds intact and going? I don’t know. You want to be fair and you want to give it to who needs it the most, but if you hear their story, you know, they all need it. So it’s a tough call.”

After looking at its plans for allocating $150,000 available in the county’s 2020 elderly fund budget, the commissioners figured there would be $3,500 left of additional funding that it might be able to give to the SEKAAA and its nutrition program — less than 15 percent of the amount of additional funding the agency requested.

The commission did not make a decision Friday on funding for the SEKAAA. Those interested in donating to the agency can reach the SEKAAA at 620-431-2980 or visit www.sekaaa.com for more information.