Volunteers pick up meals for delivery from BID-Needham/ Credit: Needham Observer

The Traveling Meals program is an institutional “Glover baby,” having been nurtured in 1971 at Glover Memorial Hospital, which then was a town department.

The town got out of the hospital business when Glover was merged into the Deaconess Hospital system in 1994. Its successor, Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham, has continued the program, preparing low-cost, high-nutrition lunches and dinners for about 50 town residents five days a week, charging the town the bargain price of $6.25 per meal.

As BIDH-Needham has grown, it literally has added hundreds more mouths to feed, but its food service capacity has not grown along with the rest of the sprawling campus along Chestnut Street. In 2022, the hospital informed the town it might soon need to end its participation in the Traveling Meals program as it was struggling to fulfill its own food service needs.

In February, that time appeared to have arrived. BIDH-Needham President John Fogarty sent a letter to Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick saying, “This letter serves as 12-month notice that we will no longer be able to provide this valuable service.”

The hospital reversed its position this past Monday when Fogarty sent another “Dear Kate” letter saying BID was revoking its notice to withdraw. In a statement to the Observer, Fogarty said, “We have informed the town that we plan to continue with the Traveling Meals program and are pleased we are able to support this important initiative.

“We have continued to invest in our dietary facilities and offerings, including expanding our café hours for employees beginning next month.”

The February withdrawal notice came just three months after the hospital and the town concluded multiple months of negotiations revising the hospital’s 2018 PILOT agreement with the town. The 2023 agreement marked the first time the hospital’s participation in Traveling Meals was explicitly included.

Nonprofits such as schools and hospitals often provide a combination of revenue and in-kind services. PILOTs are most often voluntary, not mandated, and nonprofits often pay nothing.

Fitzpatrick said the town’s agreements with BID are not negotiated annually. “It generally changes when the hospital has acquired or disposed of property,” she said.

The hospital historically has paid 12.7% of what a for-profit commercial property owner would pay in taxes. From 2018 to 2023, the total valuation of hospital-owned parcels increased almost 25%, from $29.4 million to $36.3 million. The 2023 agreement is expected to yield an annual payment of $119,217.

“We started discussing this PILOT agreement in the summer of 2023, and they signed it in November,” said Fitzpatrick. “At that point, they felt they were going to be able to continue (the meals program). But they did ask us to add the (exit) clause.”

“To be clear, the Traveling Meals was not in the PILOT agreement before this. We asked them to add it.”

Prior to the hospital’s reversal, Fitzpatrick said BID-Needham was keeping lines of communication open and offered hope that the exit could be avoided. “They said they gave us the 12-month letter because that covered them. But they’re still pondering whether this is something they will be able to continue. So we’re going to keep talking to them to see if there’s anything that changes in their staffing that would allow it.”

“The traveling meals program is an important community resource, and we have been proud to support it for many years,” Fogarty said in a statement to the Observer. “We are having ongoing discussions with the town on how we can forge a path forward together to sustainably support this program.” 

Board of Health shifts gears

The most recent negotiations put the town and the hospital back on that path. The major navigational duties will likely fall to Tim McDonald, the town’s director of health and human services.

Traveling Meals is run by HHS staff and multiple volunteers who deliver the meals. The meals are paid for by the residents themselves, funded by the state or covered by The Friends of the Board of Health and Traveling Meals.

HHS has often noted that food insecurity is an issue in town, and Traveling Meals helps put a dent in that problem. The program also addresses social isolation, as a vast majority of meal recipients are homebound.

“It doesn’t happen every month, but the board hears about the five times or so a year that we find a senior that’s on the floor and we call 911,” McDonald said when the issue was discussed at this month’s Board of Health meeting.

“The question is, when would someone have found them if we weren’t going there every weekday? So, we think it’s a really valuable community program and we’re going to do whatever we can to continue it.”

McDonald has dedicated considerable time over the past 18 months to find an alternative vendor. “Unsurprisingly, there weren’t a ton of food establishments interested in producing lots of meals for seniors at a loss,” he said. 

The town’s long-term capital spending plan includes considering expansion of the kitchen facilities at the Center at the Heights, possibly creating a commercial kitchen with the capacity to support the Traveling Meals program and address other food insecurity issues in town.

McDonald said last week the February notice of BID’s departure had created deadline pressure that has been somewhat alleviated by the reversal of that decision. “Our foot is not completely off the gas, but there’s certainly a lot less urgency.”

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