WALNUT CREEK -- The across-the-board federal spending cuts that took effect in March are squeezing programs that serve the poor and elderly in Contra Costa County.

Meals on Wheels of Contra Costa and the Contra Costa Housing Authority, already struggling to make do with less funding since the 2008 economic collapse, are bracing for additional budget cuts that will reduce the number of people they can help.

Meals on Wheels, which delivers prepared meals to about 2,100 homebound seniors each year, lost $100,000 in federal funding due to the sequester, according to Senior Nutrition Director Paul Kraintz. That cut comes on top of a $200,000 reduction in private donations and client contributions which make up 60 percent of the program's $2.6 million annual budget, he said.

Currently, there is a list of about 70 people per day who must wait about two weeks for a slot to open up on a delivery route. Due to the loss of federal funding, Meals on Wheels has, since May 1, only accepted new clients who have no other option for receiving a daily meal.

"Sequestration just basically shoved us over the edge; we were already struggling," Kraintz said.

Statewide, Meals on Wheels and other providers that deliver meals to seniors are losing $936,436 in federal funding due to the sequester, according to the state Department of Aging. Programs that provide meals at senior centers and other locations are taking a $3.5 million hit.

Five days per week, Meals on Wheels volunteers of Contra Costa deliver well-balanced meals including whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables to people age 60 and older.

On Thursday, Alamo resident Sherry Kamlani and her black poodle Cookie Monster were delivering tuna salad, whole-wheat bread, salad and mandarin oranges to several residents of Walnut Creek Manor, a senior apartment community.

A smoker with a penchant for junk food, 83-year-old Bill Tucker has lost 40 pounds in the five years he's been a Meals on Wheels client, according to his son Tim, 57. Tim Tucker said the program provides a valuable service for his father.

"He likes the program," Tim Tucker said. "If it got pulled out from underneath him, so to speak, because of budget cuts, he would have to be monitored more closely."

For seniors such as Alvin and Vendolyn Emmanuel, who are living on a fixed income, the daily meals are invaluable.

"It means a lot to us. At this age, we're not working and getting help from Social Security," said 83-year-old Vendolyn Emmanuel, who stopped cooking several years ago because she suffers from muscle tremors. "This meal we have for dinner and we have a light lunch."

Providers say the Meals on Wheels spending cuts could have long-term repercussions if more low-income seniors are forced into nursing homes, shifting the costs to Medicaid.

"That's why the federal government got involved in this, to keep people in their homes because it's not just the most humane (way), it's the cheapest way," Kraintz said.

Contra Costa Housing Authority administers the Section 8 rent voucher program and owns and manages 1,200 public housing units. Although agency staffers are still waiting to find out how much the sequester will cut rental subsidy payments, they expect to lose about $4.9 million overall, when combined with other ongoing federal spending cuts.

"We do show that at this point we're not planning on having to kick anyone off the program," said Joseph Villarreal, executive director. "But we're housing 500 fewer families than we would normally be allowed to house."

Housing vouchers already are in great demand in the county. The last time the agency opened up the waiting list in 2008, 40,000 families applied and 6,000 were selected by lottery, according to Villarreal.

"Because of these ongoing cuts we have not called one of them," he said.

Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.

to donate
For information on donating to Meals on Wheels of Contra Costa call 866-669-6697 or go to www.mealsonwheelsofcontracosta.org.