by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — The future of the senior citizen nutrition program throughout Niagara County hangs in the balance of a budget decision by the county Legislature these next few months.
But some of the residents of the Highland Avenue area in Niagara Falls want to make sure if their program will be slashed, cuts are performed equally across the county.
"If you're going to make cuts, make them fairly," Denise Easterling told a group of assembled politicians and representatives from the county's Office for the Aging who met with concerned participants at St. John A.M.E. church on Garden Avenue in the city Thursday.
"If you're going to cut us down to three days, cut everybody down to three days," she said. "Is it about the numbers and people or is it about money?"
Ken Genewick, the director of the county office responsible for funding the lunch program, stood front and center Thursday along with State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, County Legislator Owen Steed, D-4th District, and state Assembly candidate Robert Restaino, Democratic candidate for the 145th district, and spoke about the reasons his department is considering the cut down.
The Office For the Aging currently runs two programs – one for in-home delivery and the on-site group program which St. John participates in.
He said the church's program hasn't maintained strong, consistent participation to justify the full-week offerings.
Genewick said county dollars and state money combine together to provide the meals, but those dollars are distributed based on U.S. Census figures. The state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) pays for most of the service but is limited to what dollars come in from the federal government.
"We're trying to get these services to everyone in Niagara County," he said. "Right now, we're looking at the entire county, trying to make sure everyone has access. But every year when we submit our budget, we're maxing out what we're asking for."
The Rev. Bruce D. Points Sr., pastor at St. John A.M.E., said the cuts being proposed to help unburden the county financially aren't being made on the basis of equitability.
He said there's been a shift in power in the county from the western end to the east, where services like his church's senior program run more like opportunities rather than necessities.
"They're taken from those communities, like this one, where they're needed the most and given to those communities where those representatives can benefit most from them," he said. "And census figures don't always indicate need. These programs aren't necessarily needed in other portions of the county. They have them because they can. This area ... has a need. When programs like this get cut down, we know there'll be cut down after cut down after cut down until it's gone completely.
"In this area, it's needed. Without it, it represents the deterioration of hope."
The biggest concern for those involved at the St. John program isn't the food, though. It represents a lot more to them. They get to socialize with others, they get to laugh and love and continue to experience life.
They come together every day to play Bingo or to exercise. Every day brings with it new activities, whether it's active or them talking while watching television programs like "The Price Is Right."
To them, it's about the community they live in and the friendships they make with their neighbors.
"This program got us coming out every day, to appreciate the community," Ive Palmer said, explaining the program has given him an opportunity to talk to people and eat healthy meals since his wife suffered a stroke more than 10 years ago.
And Susie Brewer said shutting the doors to the church's meal program, which could still happen if enough funding doesn't arrive, would devastate the people who do show up, whether it's once in a while or every single day.
She implored the politicians in attendance and Genewick to consider the people who'll be affected rather than the money.
"Doesn't it matter to you, whether you have 12 people or however many, ... that closing this place will break our hearts?" she asked.