By LENORE RUTHERFORD
The signs at the senior meals sites say "suggested donation."
But "donation" belies how necessary that money is.
Though no senior will be turned away from meals sites for an inability to pay, the $2.50 those who can pay helps keep meals programs going. Even with that money, the contractors who provide services to senior citizens through the Area 12 Agency on Aging still come up short, often.
The agency oversees meals programs and other services for senior citizens in Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador, Mariposa and Alpine counties. Area 12 gets state and federal money for the programs, and for most services, contracts with outside providers. Federal law prohibits an outright charge for services.
But that doesn't mean they don't need money.
"I think it is important for people who can pay even a quarter or $1 for a meal to participate," Area 12 Executive Director Peggy Lee said. "That will allow their neighbors who need home-delivered meals to get them.
"Otherwise, we are going to have to start waiting lists," she said, "and we don't want to do that."
Lee said meals programs whether at sites around the counties or home-delivered Meals on Wheels for shut-ins help people maintain independence and provide not only nutrition, but the chance for older people to socialize.
It all comes at a cost, however.
Area 12 ran into fiscal trouble earlier this year in Calaveras County when it took over direct meal service at the Calaveras Senior Center in San Andreas. In just a few months, the agency racked up $43,000 in debt there. The four previous meals providers the agency had contracted with had also run in the red.
Part of the trouble was that people who ate at the site thought their "suggested donation" was going to the senior center, which they already help support, instead of to help pay for the costs of the hot lunches.
The cost to contractors for senior meals varies from $5.79 to $7, depending on overhead, Lee said.