When word broke last week that the city’s largest free dinner, the Quarter Meal, will be reducing service and possibly closing, many wondered what further hits await Berkeley food programs already facing cuts in both city and private sector funding.
Rising costs forced the cuts in the Quarter Meal, Berkeley’s oldest dinner service for low income and homeless residents. Run by the Berkeley Food and Housing Project (BFHP), the dinner—which usually operates five days a week—will cut back to three on March 1 and will close by June if financial problems aren’t resolved.
As with other similar programs in Berkeley, the Quarter Meal’s troubles didn’t stem solely from city budget cuts. The program took in as much from the city this year as last, and private donations were up 24 percent.
What threatens to sink the program are skyrocketing costs in health care premiums and workers compensation on top of mandatory compliance with the city’s living wage ordinance—which raised minimum the wage for city employees and anyone working on a city contract from $9.75 to $10.76 an hour to reflect inflation.
“We could have handled any one of those problems on their own,” said Marci Jordan, BFHP executive director. Combined, however, the costs were too much.
Jordan said the decision to cut the Quarter Meal came after months of eyeing the budget. The BFHP knew the new fiscal year would bring hardship, but staffers couldn’t predict just how badly. The decision to eliminate the meal service came only after cuts in other programs. BFHP employees haven’t had a raise in two years, vision plans were cut, medical plans with lower premiums were chosen and some positions were eliminated at other facilities run by the BFHP.
Jordan said other projects were spared because cuts there would push people from shelters and transition programs back onto the streets.
“It came to a choice of food or shelter,” she said.
BFHP also operates the North County Women’s Center (which includes a women’s daytime drop-in center and a shelter), the men’s shelter at the Berkeley Veteran’s building, the Russell Street residence for the mentally disabled homeless, and the multi-service center (MSC)—a referral and intensive case management service.
The Quarter Meal currently operates on a $207,012 budget, including $60,000 from the city. BFHP’s total budget is a little over $2 million. With the increase in service costs for the 45-50 BFHP employees, they now face a $110,000 hole they cannot fill.
Jordan doesn’t blame the city, and she plans to ask them for more money—because without more money from the city and other donors, BFHP will soon have to make other cuts.
“If [costs] continue to rise, we’re going to have to close programs that will put people on the street,” Jordan said.
Jane Micallef, a City of Berkeley community services specialist, said city Housing Department Director Steve Barton recently surveyed all the programs, asking them to review their current budget problems and try to predict others they could face in the future.
Like Jordan, Micaleff fears that the just-announced cuts are only the beginning. “I think this city has demonstrated enormous commitment to homelessness problems,” he said, “but there is only so much a city the size of Berkeley can do.”
Unfortunately, say advocates, BFHP and Quarter Meal aren’t the only programs facing budgetary woes. Other food programs in Berkeley are also scrambling with city and private funding cutbacks.
Jackie DeBose, volunteer director at New Light—a food service and delivery program that serves food to elderly people primarily in south and west Berkeley—said her service is getting by on a shoestring after the city cut their funds by $10,000.
Founded by Maudelle Shirek, now a city councilmember, New Light opened three decades ago to provide healthier alternatives for the home-bound elderly. Their delivery service provides lunches on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, serving over 10,000 people a year, and feeds another 5,000 yearly at their California Street facility.
New Light’s private donations fell this year, with a $25,000 reduction in last year’s $150,000 budget—including the loss of $15,000 from the San Francisco Foundation—forcing the organization to consolidate jobs and cut staff vacation pay.
DeBose said the budget is so tight there isn’t money to organize a fundraiser or send out a mailing, and she’s heard that further cuts in city funding are imminent.
“Another cut would be devastating to us,” she said. “There is a good chance that we would have to shut down.”
DeBose said she’s frustrated with the city, pointing to other programs—including the proposed police K-9 unit—as examples of what she calls mismanagement.
“I love dogs, but if you have on the one hand seniors who need to be fed, [and on the other, dogs], do you feed the seniors or the dogs?”
She said the thought of the program closing and seniors lapsing back into unhealthy eating habits is painful. “We’re the bottom, we’re the net, and when you put a hole in the net, people fall through,” she said.
Other local programs facing cutbacks include the county-wide Project Open Hand, the Women’s Day-Time Drop-In Center in Berkeley, and several others.
Brian Devine, East Bay program manager for Open Hand (which also runs a larger program in San Francisco), said the past two or three years have been tough on the organization which delivers meals to people with terminal diseases.
Most of Open Hand’s funds comes from corporate donors who have generally slashed grants in response to the poor economy. Devine said that because most corporations keep their donation money in the stock market, as the market slumped, so did contributions.
While healthcare and workers comp costs have continued to escalate and Open Hand pays more for its meals because of the costlier specialty foods needed for those with restricted diets, Devine said his program’s overall private sector funds had remained constant—allowing the East Bay program to make do with minimal cuts, including the elimination of this year’s employee cost of living raises.
Devine said that while program staff members have almost grown accustomed to cuts, “it’s been very disheartening.”
The Women’s Day-Time Drop-In Center has survived reduced and redirected city funding thanks to increased private funding, said Claudia Madison. Program staff, who serve breakfast and lunch six days a week, still worry about cuts to other city programs however, because their organization functions primarily as a referral and management service.
On Wednesday night, Quarter Meal clients were still in good spirits, trying to get their food and eat before volunteers started to clean up. News of the cuts could be heard in soft voices under the louder bustle of the crowd. Mike Douglas and Heather Noyes are both homeless and have eaten at the Quarter Meal four or five times a week since coming to Berkeley from Richmond two years ago. They say they’ll have to scramble more than usual from now on. They have no other option.
“I just roll with the punches because reality is reality,” said Douglas.