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MIAMI (CBSMiami) — It’s lunchtime at the Armando Badia Senior Center in Miami. If you’re over 60, provide your Medicare card, social security number and state ID, you qualify for a ‘free’ hot meal and snack box

So why are seniors dropping money in this box?

“When I registered, I was told I needed to pay 50-cents in order to have lunch or $3 a week.”

This senior was afraid to show her face on camera or be identified.

Click here to watch Eliott Rodriguez’s report. 

“They call it a donation, but you are forced to pay that 50-cents. Not everybody can pay that 50-cents but they pay,” she said.

“It may not be much to you and me or the average person, but these seniors that are below the poverty level, to a lot of them 50-cents, $1, $2 can mean whether they buy medication or not for the week,” insisted former State Representative Julio Robaina. He calls it donation by intimidation.

“Give a weekly amount and charge every singe day! Does that sound like a donation to you? Absolutely not! They’re basically intimidated into donating,” he said.

In fact, the day we sent two seniors undercover, they were told they had to pay.

“Nobody is denied service because they don’t have the money. They’re not forced to donate,” said Cristina Penedo, Executive Director of Southwest Social Services.

So, how is it that all the seniors gave the same amount?

“They decide that themselves,” Penedo told us. “That’s like what you would call peer pressure.”

“This is ridiculous!” exclaimed State Senator Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood. She chairs the Senate Elder Affairs Committee. She insisted that no senior is required to donate.

“Yes it is taxpayer-funded and it is supposed to be free for seniors,” said Sobel.

In Senator Sobel’s district in Broward, we called a number of senior centers.

At the Southwest Focal Point Center in Pembroke Pines, we were told they “ask for a donation of $2.00 a meal.”

In Margate, at the Northwest Focal Point Senior Center we were told “there is a voluntary donation of $2.50 a meal.”

And at the Sylvia Poitier and Theodora Williams Senior Center in Ft. Lauderdale, the person who answered the phone said “We expect a small donation.”

The Broward Meals on Wheels program which runs the senior lunch program in that county, issued a statement that said in part: “As a very loose guideline, we suggest a $2.00 donation toward the cost of each $7.59 meal.”

“I want to see where the money’s going and how much money they’re actually collecting,” said Sen. Sobel.

According to Penedo, The Badia Center serves an average of 225 meals a day at 50-cents a day. That’s almost $30,000 a year.

“It needs to stop. It’s wrong,” declared Senator Sobel.

Some seniors we spoke with outside the Badia center said they were happy to give money to help the center.

And according to the Older Americans Act of 1965, clients will be given an opportunity to voluntarily and confidentially contribute to the cost of the service.

Senator Sobel said she’ll ask the state to investigate.

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Eliott Rodriguez

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