The Peace Meal program that provides hot meals to seniors four days a week in 14 East Central Illinois counties will end Sept. 30, and it will be replaced by a new program using frozen meals.
CHAMPAIGN — The Peace Meal program that provides hot meals to seniors four days a week in 14 East Central Illinois counties will end Sept. 30, and it will be replaced by a new program using frozen meals.
Peace Meal — which serves hot lunches at 52 congregate meal sites and also deliveries meals to home-bound seniors — has been sponsored by Eastern Illinois University for nearly four decades.
But the university decided to end its sponsorship, so the Eastern Illinois Area Agency on Aging conducted a competitive process to select a new sponsor and chose Danville-based CRIS Healthy-Aging Center to take over the program Oct. 1.
The intent is to keep all congregate meal sites in the 14-county area open, said Michael O'Donnell, executive director of the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging.
But, he added, "CRIS will use a different format. They will use a frozen product."
Peace Meal — which has been serving about 1,400 people a day — has five central kitchens to prepare meals in bulk and deliver them to congregate sites and put them in containers for home deliveries, O'Donnell said.
Through CRIS, seniors getting meals at home will still receive the same number of meals, but receive deliveries twice a week, O'Donnell said. All clients will be assessed to make sure they have the appropriate home equipment to reheat frozen meals, he said.
The 14 counties served by the program includes Champaign, Clark, Coles, Cumberland, DeWitt, Douglas, Edgar, Ford, Iroquois, Livingston, McLean Moultrie, Piatt and Shelby counties.
The suggested contribution for a meal is $3.50, and most people pay $1.90 to $2 per meal, O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell said CRIS will be able to provide the meal service with fewer staff — about 78 people as opposed to the 95 employed by Peace Meal — and that efficiency is important as funds continue to decline and the elderly population continues to grow.
"Instead of putting money into staffing, we can put more money into meals," he said.
Peace Meal Director Barbra Wylie, however, said there was enough funding to continue a hot meals program and she contends the seniors of East Central Illinois deserve better than frozen meals.
Peace Meal rejected the idea of frozen meals in the past because it believes frozen meals don't meet the needs of the most frail elderly, she said.
Some seniors using canes and walkers have trouble moving meals from freezers to microwave or conventional ovens, and arthritic hands can't remove lids from trays or open milk and fruit containers alone very well, Wylie said.
"We provide support. We provide contact. We are opening your milk," she said. "We believe we are more than just a meal, and a frozen meal is just a meal."
Wylie said Eastern Illinois University had worked with Peace Meal to find a new sponsor for the program, and Peace Meal was working with the other applicant to become the new sponsor, Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center, which would have maintained a hot-meal format.
In an open letter to the communities it serves, the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging said CRIS demonstrated a "willingness and ability" to increase participation in the congregate meals program and respond to the need for home-delivered meals, especially in unserved areas.
CRIS also demonstrated a willingness and ability to restore the congregate meal program to five days a week, the letter states.
Peace Meal cut service to four days a week in 2011 because of funding reductions, but O'Donnell said clients could still get a meal for the fifth day that they could reheat on their own.
CRIS will give Peace Meal employees a chance to apply for the jobs that will be available in the new program, O'Donnell said.
CRIS plans to make Champaign its headquarters for CRIS meals, said CRIS CEO Amy Marchant.
Already the provider of such nutrition programs in Vermilion County as Meals on Wheels and several congregate meals sites, CRIS has experience with frozen meals and has found they work well for the clients because people can eat whenever they want to, Marchant said.
"After we implemented the frozen meals in Vermilion County, we had a slight reduction for a few weeks because the sound of frozen meals didn't sound as appealing to some people," she recalls. "Then after six weeks, the numbers soared."
CRIS can serve one-third more meals going the frozen route, Marchant says, "which is so important because the need is climbing and the funding isn't climbing."
Marchant said CRIS plans to have volunteers make phone calls to fill in for fewer personal visits.
Peace Meal: http://bit.ly/127q3HX 
CRIS Healthy-Aging: http://vermilionseniors.com