Allegheny County is scaling back how often a government-subsidized program delivers meals to homebound older residents.
Officials promise a seamless transition that will still provide five dinners a week and ensure that volunteers maintain everyday contact with residents if needed.
For the 1,300 customers of the Allegheny Home Delivered Meals Program, the distribution schedule will be reduced to three days a week from five days, effective July 1.
While the county's Area Agency on Aging will be cutting back on the delivery schedule, the number of meals delivered will remain at five per week, said agency administrator Mildred Morrison.
"No meal is being eliminated," Ms. Morrison said.
Meals for Monday and Tuesday now will be delivered Monday; meals for Wednesday and Thursday will be delivered Wednesday. And there will be a Friday delivery.
However, current LifeSpan Hillsdale volunteer driver, Ann Roper, 80, is worried about the consumers she has been delivering to for almost seven years. Many of the consumers suffer from dementia so she is concerned that they will eat all the food on the day they receive it, going without any food on Tuesday and Thursday.
Beyond delivering food, part of the importance of the county program is to touch base with older residents to check on their well-being. Officials have pledged that any resident receiving meals who needs contact more frequently than three days a week will receive it.
A second major change to the county's meal program will affect the largest provider of the agency, Lutheran Service Society, which delivers about 500 meals per day -- nearly 40 percent of the program total.
The society's contract expires at the end of this month, and the longtime provider has opted not to renew, said John Dickey, president and CEO of Lutheran Service Society.
Residents who have been used to having their meals delivered by the Lutheran group must prepare for a change.
The society is working with the Area Agency on Aging on distributing their work to other program providers, Ms. Morrison said.
"Four agencies have stepped forward working with us to create a very different design for how we deliver the meals in a way that gives us a great foundation moving forward in a way that it is not just a Band-Aid for the loss of Lutheran," Ms. Morrison said.
LifeSpan currently delivers 275 meals a day and will increase its consumers to more than 600, taking over some of Lutheran's consumers, LifeSpan CEO Virginia Jurofcik said.
All people being served by the program will be notified by letters or phone in the coming weeks about the change in delivery schedule and the possible change in the volunteer and the provider delivering the meals, said Joseph Barker, chief of the county Department of Human Services' independent services bureau.
But, the extra, smaller services for the consumers such as taking out the trash when the consumer may forget or bringing in the mail to a consumer who may not walk downstairs will be eliminated as paid drivers replace the volunteer drivers and the length of each delivery route increases, Ms. Roper said.
"We've all gone in when someone was on the floor," said Ms. Roper, who was notified last week of the changes.
"This is kind of the extra thing we do and it will suddenly be gone. It is going to be very confusing for them and this is the worst possible thing," she said.
Cutting back delivery to only three days ensures that all the consumers will receive the five meals every week in the most cost-effective way in light of rising gas and labor costs, Mr. Barker said.
Lutheran's expenses have increased while the program's funding from state and federal governments has remained stable.
That flat funding has persisted for the past eight years and rendered the county program no longer practical or cost-effective for the society, Mr. Dickey said.
During the past six years, the cost to produce the entire meal and deliver it has increased 44 percent, according to Mr. Dickey. This amount has increased about 8 percent in the last 12 months alone, he said.
The current contract shows that Lutheran Service Society is to receive $672,500 for the year ending June 30, according to the county controller's office.
That amount has barely changed for the past six years, Mr. Dickey said.
In the past, the society has had to ask for donations in order to make up the difference between its costs to run the program and what the county paid.
But it was difficult to persuade people to donate to a government-subsidized program, Mr. Dickey said.
Now with the new system, the county has the ability to continue providing meals if one of the other providers decides to withdraw, Ms. Morrison said.
People interested in volunteering to deliver meals can call 412-464-1300. To sign up for home delivered meals, call 412-350-5460
Correction, posted June 19, 2013: An earlier version of this story had incorrect information concerning why the program is being scaled back.
Claire Aronson: email@example.com, 412-263-1964 or on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.