CommUnify will relinquish its Senior Nutrition Program for local residents in July due to a lack of funding.
The Senior Nutrition Program began 47 years ago and serves about 720 seniors between Carpinteria and Guadalupe every day. During April alone, the program provided 17,000 meals.
The program has suffered from significant funding gaps in the past decade, receiving only about 40% to 45% of the funding needed to provide their services. For years, the organization absorbed the outstanding costs by tapping into their reserve, but this is no longer sustainable, CommUnify CEO Patricia Keelean told the News-Press.
This financial strain is forcing the local nonprofit to hand over the nutrition program to the Area Agency on Aging, which is now responsible for finding a replacement provider to keep the program alive. CommUnify will officially suspend the program July 1.
“After 47 years, it’s a very difficult, very painful decision,” Ms. Keelean said.
She later added, “We would never let go of this program if we didn’t have these funding challenges.”
Despite the impending program suspension, Ms. Keelean is hopeful that if local officials and community members provide funding, the program could remain under CommUnify’s purview.
In order for this to happen, Ms. Keelean said between $600,000 and $700,000 in permanent funding is needed. However, this would still leave the organization forced to fundraise between $400,000 and $500,000 annually just to break even.
While community donations would help, Ms. Keelean said she believes a solution would require the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to allocate funds on a permanent basis to sustain the program. Currently, most of the program’s funding comes from federal Older Americans Act dollars allocated by the Area Agency on Aging.
For many of the seniors enrolled in the program, the suspension is bringing a lot of anxiety, Ms. Keelean said.
Prior to the pandemic, CommUnify served low-income seniors at 13 dining hall sites across the region, and the nonprofit even delivered meals to homebound seniors on a daily basis. But during the COVID-19 crisis, the organization switched to a delivery-only model, where all seniors receive one hot meal a day at their front door.
Over the years, thousands of seniors have benefited from the nutrition program being a reliable source of food, particularly for those who are in tough financial situations.
Currently, Ms. Keelean said the Area Agency on Aging has assured that hot meals will be ready to go July 1, but she is not aware of any local organization that has been selected as the new provider.
The pandemic further exacerbated an already difficult situation for many seniors, the majority of whom never had to ask for help at any other time in their lives, Ms. Keelean said.
According to studies completed by CommUnify, between 47% to 58% of seniors enrolled in the program would have to make a choice between paying bills or putting food on the table without the Nutrition Program.
“What we’ve seen during the pandemic is a huge increase in the need among seniors,” Ms. Keelean said. “Many of the seniors that have come to us in the past year were seniors that have never had to ask for help before. And what we’re seeing is that as the senior population grows and as finances become tighter, more and more seniors are having to make the difficult decision between purchasing groceries or buying their medications or seeking healthcare.”
She added that most of the seniors who are being served through the program lived and worked in Santa Barbara for decades, contributing to the vibrant community that exists today. For this reason, Ms. Keelean said it’s important this program remains functioning for the hundreds of low-income residents it benefits.
“We owe it to those who helped build this community to meet those basic needs at their age.”