Nationwide Meals on Wheels
The Meals on Wheels program is one of the largest care programs for vulnerable Americans in the country. Food insecurity, a term used to describe a condition of need as a result of poor health or poverty, continues to be a concern in the United States. Millions of seniors on limited income, in poor health, and/or without regular care from family members rely on home delivery food programs like Meals on Wheels not only for a balanced meal, but also a friendly face visiting from time to time.
Food service programs began as a part of Great Britain's recovery from World War II. During and after the war, the Women's Volunteer Service for Civil Defense prepared and delivered meals to those displaced from their bombed homes. The organization also delivered goods to the soldiers' canteens. The servicemen dubbed the program "Meals on Wheels."
The first U.S. city to pick up this food service model was Philadelphia in 1954, and programs in New York soon developed. Numerous high school and college students volunteered as meal deliverers, and the recipients tagged them the "platter angels".
Today, almost every community in the U.S. has a food aid program available.
Why Meals on Wheels Is Important
Meals on Wheels and similar food insecurity agencies follow optimum dietary guidelines designed to improve and maintain the nutritional standards of seniors and others in need.
Most local food programs team up with cooking services to create healthy meals with a solid protein, vegetable, and complex carbohydrate. Many meals consist of a hot lunch, along with cold bag that may feature milk, juice, salad, and dessert. Programs address special dietary needs as well, and meals are not overly seasoned with salt or sugar as to not aggravate certain health conditions.
Lunch is the primary meal served, although some agencies also provide breakfast. Many recipients are homebound, but others partake of food agency meals through a congregate program at a local senior center, community center, or church. For those who are able, the interaction and a fresh, healthy meal shared among friends can be of great importance to the overall well-being of the individual.
Relatives out of the area also appreciate food services that deliver meals to the home, just as an assurance that someone is able to occasionally check in with their loved one.
Determining Need and Program Cost
In most localities, Meals on Wheels and similar services provide a minimum of three meals a week to anyone who requests the service. Since each agency operates independently, it's difficult to provide absolute information for all communities, but the following is a general summary.
- The recipient must 18 years of age or older. Many agencies only provide to seniors 60 or older, while others will sometimes help entire families in times of need.
- The recipient should be someone living alone, or with another person who is unable to prepare meals during the day.
- The individual is incapacitated and generally homebound as a result of illness, frailty, or an accident.
- Some centers also require recipients to be on a state or federal assistance program.
- Often, a doctor's recommendation for better nutrition is another reason to receive food service.
Cost of the Program
Payment for the service is arranged on a sliding "ability to pay" scale, although rarely is anyone turned away. On average, food programs request that the recipient donate $2-$5 for a meal. Recipients pay with cash, check, and state/federal food program coupons, depending on the operations of the local center.
When Meals on Wheels first started, many seniors refused to accept meals for free, and insisted on paying a little something. They didn't want to take a handout, and so to pay even a few cents was a standard display of pride and independence. While the money does matter, promoting those psychological benefits is another reason why centers encourage the practice today.
Each local center operates on different budget, often subsidized by state and federal funding, but almost all are able to fulfill the needs of vulnerable individuals through the donations of meal recipients and others.
The U.S. Census Bureau has projected that by 2050, there will be 80 million elderly: more than double the current senior population. Knowing how to find quality services and staying up-to-date on health issues is important.
A clearinghouse website, Meal Call, is a helpful tool for finding senior food programs in your area. More often than not, community food programs do not use the name Meals on Wheels, but are quite similar in structure. You can also check with a health care provider or elder-service agency.
The Meals on Wheels Association of America has a partial list of food program agencies.