No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. But facing reality and making hard choices is something our community has been forced to do these past 12 months, and CommUnify is no exception. It is with great sadness we announce that effective July 1, 2021, CommUnify plans to suspend our Senior Nutrition Program, which has served low-income seniors in our community for 47 years. Why? Lack of funding.
For the past decade, this vital program has been running at a deficit — not only due to the increasing minimum wage, costs of food, and transportation, but also because of the rise in need by the baby boom generation, often referred to as a “silver tsunami.” Yet our funding from all branches of government — county, state, and federal — has been cut or remained status quo. This issue is not limited to Santa Barbara County or even California. In 2019, AARP’s Public Policy Institute concluded that the Older Americans Act (OAA), which provides funding for this program, “has failed to keep up with inflation and increased demand from a rapidly aging population.” While we are grateful for the federal funding we receive to feed seniors, no nonprofit organization can operate a program that only receives 40-45 percent of the funding needed to provide services. It is simply not sustainable.
Since 2011, CommUnify has absorbed nearly $4 million in unfunded expenses, covering deficits with our reserves in order to maintain this countywide meal service, but we can no longer operate in a financial hole, as it is threatens the long-term financial stability of the organization. The only way to continue providing nutritious meals to our low-income seniors, many who are homebound, is with an additional $600,000-$700,000 in permanentfunding. Even with this amount, our organization would still be committing to fundraise approximately $400,000-$500,000 annually just to break even.
Making matters worse, food insecurity among seniors during the pandemic has increased and the demand for meals has soared. In April alone, CommUnify served over 17,000 meals countywide — and the requests from seniors continue. Over the past year, we incurred additional costs associated with COVID-19 protocols, such as sanitation supplies and staff training, and with community dining sites closed, nearly all meals had to be delivered directly to the seniors’ homes. This required more staff, training, vehicles, gas, and maintenance. With the assistance of a very generous philanthropic community, we have been able to address some of those costs. But as the community need ballooned and costs skyrocketed, funding has not kept pace and our deficit has swelled past $1 million annually.
In 2019, we embarked on two initiatives to lower our costs. One was a successful partnership with Santa Barbara Unified School District’s food service department to prepare meals for our local Santa Barbara-based seniors, at a reduced cost. This liaison went well until food costs increased dramatically, and SBUSD suddenly passed that increase on to us in 2020.
The other cost-reducing initiative was the implementation of community volunteers to handle senior meal deliveries, allowing us to save money on paid labor. That program is still up and running but due to the pandemic, we have only a small — though dedicated — group of volunteers. The labor savings at this time is not significant enough to change our financial trajectory.
In closing, I’d like to share this voice message from Anne, one of our program’s seniors, who expressed her gratitude, through tears, for the meal and friendly visit she had received that day:
“I was just going to put my bin out on the step, and I get a knock on the door and it’s my delivery man. How nice and sweet he is. I don’t know what his name is, but I called to him and we exchanged words. I’m very grateful. You know, I don’t have any money to give you … I’m two months behind on my rent … um, but what’s amazing is the simple things … I just wanted to say thank you … I’m so appreciative and God bless you.”
It is our hope that local community will step in to provide the funding needed to prevent the closure of CommUnify’s Senior Nutrition Program. It has been a privilege serving those most vulnerable in our community for all these years and we hope our program can continue to meet this critical basic need for those who helped to build this community. We can be reached online at https://www.communifysb.org/senior-services/healthy-table, or by calling (800) 655-0617.
Patricia Keelean is the Chief Executive Officer of CommUnify, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works in partnership with the community to provide education and supportive services to residents of Santa Barbara County resulting in improved economic security and self-sufficiency.