Over fish sticks, rice pilaf, steamed vegetables, and diced pineapple, John Malia, 75, performed his usual routine last Wednesday: With his thickest impression of a Boston accent, he recited jokes from the comics section of the newspaper, prompting laughter from his fellow diners.
Marian LeFoy, a chatty 89-year-old with short white hair and a walker, said that these weekday lunches, subsidized by the state’s Elderly Nutrition Program, are the highlight of her day.
“We’re old people, so we need some face-to-face conversation,’’ said LeFoy, laughing.
Roy Small, a World War II veteran, interjected: “And it’s the only meal I have that’s not junk food.’’
Governor Deval Patrick last month proposed a state budget that included a $1.5 million cut to the Elderly Nutrition Program, which provides free or subsidized meals to the elderly through home deliveries and communal meals, such as the lunch at Farnsworth House in Jamaica Plain earlier this week.
The proposed cutbacks have drawn ire from state advocates for the elderly, who say that reducing meal services to senior citizens - especially communal meals, the most likely to be eliminated - will cause long-term health problems for seniors.
But in announcing his budget proposal, Patrick said the state remains short of cash, forcing stiff cuts in services, and that his funding priorities were education and infrastructure. Officials said that the proposed meals cuts, a 24 percent reduction that could mean 240,000 fewer lunches statewide next year, are meant only for seniors who have other options, and that they preserve services for the most needy.
“We have had to make some very difficult decisions,’’ said Ann Hartstein, secretary of the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, in a statement this week. “In developing this budget, our highest priority was to preserve services for our most vulnerable seniors with urgent care needs - including meal deliveries to homebound seniors and medical services from MassHealth.’’
While the Elderly Nutrition Program also receives about $15.2 million this year from the federal government, the state’s cut would be a major blow to the program, lauded for providing nutritional and psychological benefits to elderly people who can no longer cook for themselves.
“Frankly, the cuts are shortsighted and cold-hearted,’’ said Deborah Banda, AARP Massachusetts state director. “If these elders don’t get the proper nutrition, their health is going to suffer, and their medical care is going to cost much more than these meals.’’
Dale Mitchell, executive director of Ethos, one of three Boston organizations that provide meals to seniors through funding from the Elderly Nutrition Program, said the proposed cutback came as a surprise, because meal delivery programs are considered the sacred cow of elderly services.
“I was floored,’’ Mitchell said. “Of all the possible areas that I anticipated cuts, elderly nutrition wasn’t even on the list.’’
At this point, the funding cut is just a proposal: In coming months, state legislators will make their own suggestions for budget allocations.
The Elderly Nutrition Program provides funding for local nonprofits, all affiliated with Meals On Wheels Association of America, to provide two types of meal service: Some homebound senior citizens receive meals delivered to their door. Others, who are minimally mobile but have difficulty cooking, eat a communal lunch at nearby senior centers, schools, and churches.
If cuts are instituted, Mitchell said, those group meals will probably be sacrificed for the door-to-door deliveries. That could be detrimental to elderly people who are mobile but need encouragement to venture outside their home.
“For many people, meal sites are the only place they socialize for the day,’’ said Al Norman, executive director of Mass Home Care, a network of nonprofits that provide home-based care. “That’s the unspoken benefit of the meals program - the socialization and integration it provides to people who are often very isolated.’’
LeFoy, the chattiest of the Farnsworth House diners, does not actually eat meals at the group lunches. Her medication prevents her from eating a large midday meal - instead, because she cannot stand long enough to use a stove, she pays a monthly fee for Meals On Wheels deliveries to her door, and eats them for supper. The rest of the day, she tides herself over with microwaveable hot cereal.
Still, she comes to the communal lunch every weekday, for the company.
“It keeps you out of the nursing home - God help you!’’ said LeFoy, crossing her fingers on both hands. “It keeps you independent, and that’s really swell.’’Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.