When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the start of an initiative last month to deliver free meals to California seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic, he declared that "the universe of those eligible is certainly in the millions."
"Even if it's hundreds of thousands that take advantage of this, just in weeks you'll see millions and millions of meals as part of this program," the governor said at his April 24 news conference.
But nearly a month later, the Great Plates Delivered program has served only 16,377 seniors. Local leaders say delayed information from the state, the duplication of existing services to provide meals to seniors and questions about the government reimbursement have hampered the ability to quickly ramp up the program.
Federal funding for the program was also originally slated to end May 10, just two weeks after Newsom announced it — a possible deterrent for restaurants and municipalities to participate in what might have initially appeared to be a short-term effort.
The coronavirus outbreak has left millions of elderly Californians and those with pre-existing conditions fearful of visiting grocery stores. Newsom initially said the goal of the program was to provide generous government reimbursements — up to $66 per day for three daily meals — to restaurants that prepare the food, employ workers in the industry and allow California's most vulnerable residents to receive healthy meals in the safety of their homes.
As of Wednesday, 168,163 meals had been delivered from 249 restaurants, according to Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. The state's COVID-19 website lists nearly 50 participating cities and counties.
Ferguson defended Great Plates Delivered in response to questions about why the state hasn't dispatched millions of meals as Newsom projected.
“Sixteen thousand seniors who are hungry are getting meals that they wouldn’t have gotten and 250 restaurants are getting business that they wouldn’t have gotten," Ferguson said.
Ferguson added that dozens of other cities, counties and organizations have submitted letters of intent to join the program and said it is on track to provide 1 million meals once all of those entities start participating.
Guidance documents from the state say local jurisdictions are responsible for funding the program and must apply to receive a 75% reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The state would pay up to 18.75% of the cost, with the remaining 6.25% ultimately falling on local governments.
Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey said his city has been slow to participate in the program, noting it already relies on nonprofits such as Meals on Wheels and the Janet Goeske Center to deliver food to seniors.
"They've been doing senior meal programs for forever," Bailey said. "They have their routes already programmed and plugged in."
Bailey said he asked the local Meals on Wheels program to facilitate the governor's initiative in the city, but the rules bar seniors from participating if they receive assistance from other government-funded nutrition programs. The mayor said the city is now working to find additional seniors in need and directing them to Riverside County's Great Plates program.
"There was some bureaucratic mumbo jumbo going on for a little while and we just kind of watched that happen before we connected the dots with the county," Bailey said of the lack of clarity about the details of the program.
When the governor announced the program in April, he described it as a replica of Meals on Wheels but at a "huge scale." By contrast, Meals on Wheels serves about 18 million meals a year in the state, according to Jim Oswald of Meals on Wheels California.
Days after the governor announced the Great Plates program, the state Meals on Wheels association applauded his plans to feed seniors and encouraged him to develop the effort with groups that have served the elderly for decades. The governor's office published some guidance on the program late last month that included recommendations from the association, but local Meals on Wheels programs have largely been coordinating with Area Agencies on Aging, local groups contracted to provide services for the elderly, in a patchwork approach.
Representatives for the association have argued that all seniors should be eligible to receive meals under the Great Plates program in addition to services from other nonprofits, noting that funding from many agencies supports only five meals per week. Others have shared their concerns about the program's eligibility criteria.
Eunice Kwon, a service coordinator at a low-income senior apartment complex in Gardena, said many of the residents in the building are excluded from the program. CalFresh recipients, for example, cannot participate in Great Plates, but many are afraid to visit the grocery store during the pandemic to use their existing benefits.
"I was just confused because it doesn't seem like California and government would have such narrow criteria for such a big program, and my clients were really excited about this because it would've provided the answer for them right now," she said. "But they're very disappointed."
Ferguson acknowledged the gaps in coverage for the program and said federal rules ban the state from providing Great Plates meals to residents who receive benefits through any federally funded food assistance programs.
The program has been extended until June 10 and the state is expected to apply for another 30-day continuation.
Beyond the Great Plates program, Oswald said Meals on Wheels is concerned about seniors in the months ahead. The governor's proposed budget cuts $8.5 million to senior nutrition programs.
"The biggest problem for us is what happens after COVID-19," he said.