ATLANTA --- David Harris says he was a good cook before arthritis, a bad heart and other health problems made it hard for him to make his own meals.
Now, the 64-year-old Army veteran gets two meals delivered to his southwest Atlanta home every other day. On a recent Friday, he got two frozen plates with honey mustard fish, cabbage and okra in one and Caribbean barbecue chicken, green peas, sweet potato casserole and a mixed fruit cup in the other. Both were low-salt meals because of his kidney failure.
"I don't want to get to the point where somebody has to wash me or feed me," Harris said. "There's nothing like taking care of yourself. That's all I know. I don't want to be a burden on anyone."
More than 138,000 meals are delivered to people such as Harris each year through the Georgia Department of Human Services. This year, possible budget cuts to the department could affect thousands of elderly Georgians who depend on such programs to maintain their independence.
Federal stimulus money helped soften the blow to the meal delivery program last year, but those funds aren't available for the upcoming fiscal year 2012 budget. Advocates are hopeful lawmakers see fit to restore the more than $1 million needed through state funds.
"That is the No. 1 issue right now," said AARP State Director Ken Mitchell. "The home-delivered meals program is critical to frail, older adults in their homes. Having nutrition or the ability to provide for themselves is clearly at risk."
Harris is a proud man who lives alone with his Labrador retriever, Bojangles. His adult children work during the day and aren't able to prepare daily meals for him. One of his sons who lives nearby stops in regularly, and the two frequently eat together. But his home-delivered meals mean a balanced diet between sandwiches or snacks.
"In the evenings, when no one's home, I have my meals," he said. "I can pop this in the microwave and move on. And it's good. They don't give me just any kind of food."
Harris also gets companionship from the people delivering his food, who chat with him about his life and health. If he's out for his tri-weekly dialysis treatment or running errands, the meals are left in a cooler on the porch or with a neighbor.
According to the Georgia Council on Aging, 23 percent of Georgia seniors have incomes between 50 percent and 100 percent of the poverty line, and 22 percent of Georgia seniors live alone. Statewide, the waiting list for home-delivered meals has grown to more than 4,300.
Advocates are also concerned about possible funding cuts to home- and community-based services that can keep the elderly and disabled out of nursing homes. They say such programs delay nursing home placements by an average of four years, and that cutting the budget for such programs would add more seniors to waiting lists and prematurely put others in nursing homes. Such a move could also result in a loss of federal Medicaid matching funds.
Kathryn Fowler, of the Georgia Council on Aging, said senior services have been hit hard in recent years by the economic downturn, and that innovative pilot programs have all but vanished, leaving supporters fighting to keep basic programs in place. Still, Fowler said she is optimistic that lawmakers will make programs such as home meal delivery and respite care a priority this session.
"They're trying," she said. "They care about it. I think if they can find the money, they will."