“Old people don’t need to eat more than four days a week,” joked 80-year-old Don Poling over green beans and chicken casserole on Tuesday afternoon at the Haines Senior Center.

But in all seriousness, Poling said the decision this July to reduce days the senior center serves meals in person to just three days per week has had a real effect on the 70 to 80 seniors who use the service.

“It takes a lot of pressure off ourselves doing the cooking,” said Poling. “I don’t know how to cook and my wife is still learning.”

Haines Senior Center has dropped the number of days seniors can have communal meals to just three because of a drop in federal grant money coming out of the pandemic. It now serves in-person meals Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Officials with Catholic Community Services, which provides the meals, emphasized that the number of meals hasn’t dropped, despite dealing with budget cuts and inflation on groceries. Across the region, CCS has cut its Monday meal service, but is adding a take-home meal on Thursday.

Still, CCS director Erin Walker-Tolles described making the cut in service hours as hard.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “Our staff is really dedicated and caring.”

The organization has had to cut staff hours and take away substitute positions, meaning they’re having to accomplish more and more.

The senior center saw more than a 70% increase in demand for meals during the pandemic, Walker-Tolles said. That’s higher than other communities in the region. The demand has dropped down slightly since then – about 7% — but still remains well above pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s minimal,” said Walker-Tolles about the drop in demand.

Meanwhile the cost of food has gone up an estimated 35% over the past two years, eating into the organization’s $8 million budget. The reduction of service is expected to save about $42,000.

Cari O’Daniel, who manages the Haines Senior Center, said it’s been hard to watch the effect on seniors, who often rely on the meals for both nutrition and socialization.

“Just getting a lunch per day saved them a lot of money for meals they didn’t have to buy,” she said.

The organization is working on shoring up more local grants and individual donations, but O’Daniel said it’s unlikely to cover the lost funding. The senior center has a suggested $5 donation per meal, which some seniors aren’t able to afford because of their limited incomes.

“Some of them live off such a limited budget for their meals, we don’t want to turn them away,” she said.

Seniors emphasized the importance of their time socializing.

“We don’t come here for the food – it’s for the getting together,” said 79-year-old Art Woodard.

Others said the offerings of salads and vegetables was a big boost in the nutrition they were getting.

“This is my one meal for the day,” said Carol Lawrence, 83. “The rest of the day I just snack.”