Debunking the Media’s ‘Meals on Wheels’ Hysteria

Press generate attack line on Trump's budget over program that isn't federally administered

The first time Mick Mulvaney, President Donald Trump’s budget director, briefed the press directly about Trump’s inaugural budget, reporters were ready with questions about cuts to a program that had all the makings of a juicy story.

Senior citizens, the disabled, and sick veterans — who are also poor.

“Some of the stories are just either grossly wrong or nearly grossly wrong, all the stories about how we cut Meals on Wheels.”

Add the cold-hearted billionaire president — a Republican — who is scheming to end the program, and it begins to sound like a made-for-Lifetime TV movie.

But the facts of the situation don’t quite live up to the narrative. Trump’s initial topline budget cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant, not the headline-grabbing program in question: Meals on Wheels. In fact, Meals on Wheels isn’t even a federal program, and the largest federal grants that do fund it come from the Department of Health and Human Services, not HUD.

Meals on Wheels gets 3 percent of its national-headquarters funding from the federal government. The program serves 2.4 million seniors, veterans, and the disabled. A third of its $1.4 billion budget comes from the federal government, according to CBS News.

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It relies on a mix of federal, state, local, and private donations for its 5,000 chapters nationwide. It also relies on volunteers to deliver the hot meals to the needy.

There is little doubt the program is popular and widely beneficial. As news spread that Trump was going to make federal cuts affecting Meals on Wheels, the private nonprofit program (based in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C.) told NBC News that it raised $100,000 in online donations over a two-day period. It typically only raises $2,000 in two days of online donations.

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The popularity of the program explains how it became an immediate story upon the unveiling of the budget. Sitting in the front row of the White House press briefing on Thursday, NBC News’ Peter Alexander was ready with a question about Meals on Wheels.

“In Austin, Texas, today, one organization there that delivers those meals to thousands of elderly says that those citizens will no longer be able to be provided for those meals,” said Alexander.

Thus Mulvaney’s slight fumble on the issue — one that spawned an unflattering, if inaccurate, spate of stories. Mulvaney said the HUD block-grant program, which he described as deeply ineffective, cannot show measurable results. Some observers then assumed he was saying Meals on Wheels wasn’t effective, either.

Even The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column had to clear up the matter. The White House budget director did not say Meals on Wheels did not show results, the Fact Checker declared.

So how much of the $3 billion in block grants go to Meals on Wheels? The federal government doesn’t know — because the states can target the grants.

“It’s certainly a small fraction: Social services are capped by law at 15 percent of the block grants, and the most recent HUD figures show all senior services receive about $33 million,” wrote USA Today.

What Meals to Wheels receives from the federal government is likely much smaller than $33 million. And the HUD block grants don’t represent all of the federal government’s grants to Meals on Wheels.

The Washington Post reported that “most of the funding for Meals on Wheels comes from a separate program run out of the Health and Human Services Department.”

Still, those facts didn’t stop Trump’s usual critics from laying it on thick.

Trump was “targeting Meals on Wheels for the elderly,” wrote Dana Milbank of The Washington Post.

“Trump voter who uses Meals on Wheels surprised by proposed cuts,” blared a CBS News headline. In its story, CBS News interviewed a disabled woman in Georgia.

On Sunday, Mulvaney fought back on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“Some of the stories are just either grossly wrong or nearly grossly wrong, all the stories about how we cut Meals on Wheels,” Mulvaney said.

One of the biggest distortions is that any cut to the block-grant program removes federal funding. Thirty-five percent of the federal revenues supporting the 5,000 local Meals on Wheels chapters nationwide come via the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program, according to Investor’s Business Daily.

Mulvaney did not mention that program at Thursday’s press briefing.

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Political reporter, LifeZette. Indiana University journalism grad. Boston U. business grad. Former Indiana, Alabama statehouse reporter, Daytona Beach editorial writer.

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