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Economy, diet rules curb Meals on Wheels programs

U.S. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion

The government issued a consumer brochure spelling out what the new guidelines mean. Click the cover for a full pdf version.

Federal guidelines meant to help Americans eat healthier foods are straining Meals on Wheels and other nonprofits already laboring to make sure the elderly get enough to eat at all.

Lanakila Meals on Wheels in Honolulu, Hawaii, already has a waiting list of 90 people, most of them elderly, who have asked for food the organization can't afford to provide.

The program can always use more volunteers, but what it really needs now is money.

"We're looking for $120,000 just to maintain our existing programs and another $170,000 to meet the needs of the 90 people who are on our wait list," Lyn Moku, the program's director, told NBC station KHNL of Honolulu.

"It's a real time of uncertainty," Moku said, because "everyone is having a hard time just with the way the economy is and unemployment."

Some Meals on Wheels programs in the U.S. support themselves solely through donations and fundraisers, but many — like Lanakila Meals on Wheels — also rely on government funding. The Hawaii program says it gets about 60 percent of its funding from government sources.

That government funding is also in question, for Lanakila Meals on Wheels and many other local chapters of the national nonprofit.

The Health Trust, a charitable foundation in Campbell, Calif., reported that it has lost more $100,000 for its Meals on Wheels program. Most of that loss has come from government sources, and small corporate sponsorships haven't made up the difference.

"It's tough. Times are very, very tough," said Enid A. Borden, president and chief executive of the Meals on Wheels Association of America.

Last week, Meals on Wheels volunteers abandoned the traditional delivery of hot Thanksgiving meals to homes across Silicon Valley in Northern California. Instead, needy individuals — most of them elderly — received a frozen meal two days in advance that they had to thaw and heat themselves, NBC station KTVU of San Francisco/Oakland reported.

Cut the salt; crunch the veggies
It's not just the economy that's squeezing government outlays for community programs in general. Some are also being restricted by new federal nutrition guidelines that set standards for assistance programs.

That means that when government agencies sit down to hand out community service grants, they have to consider the new guidelines when it comes to food programs like school lunches and Meals on Wheels.

The guidelines drew a lot of attention for calling for a drastic reduction in salt consumption, especially among those 51 and older. But they also significantly changed the recommended ratio of proteins to fresh fruits and vegetables — putting much more emphasis on the latter.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans (.pdf)

That requires new menus, new storage facilities to keep all that produce fresh and new ways to cook and deliver meals.

Meeting the new requirements could be cost-prohibitive for Meals on Wheels in Bailey County, Texas, which could lose its funding from the regional association of governments, NBC station KCBD of Lubbock reported.

Meals on Wheels for Lubbock itself isn't affected, said Lisa Gilliland, the program's assistant director, because it relies solely on donations and fundraisers. But in Bailey County, northwest of the city, and in many other areas across the country, funding could be at risk because "most of the smaller programs are government funded," she said.

Borden told msnbc.com she is confident that Meals on Wheels will figure out a way to keep handing out the 1.7 million meals it delivers every day.

"There are always things that are going to happen," she acknowledged. "We are always impacted when the price of anything goes up."

But "one of the things I know is that our program will do whatever it needs to do to feed those seniors who are hungry," she said.

"We are a resilient organization."

Alex Johnson is a news and technology reporter for msnbc.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.