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Meals on Wheels Was the Original Home Delivery Service



As much as I love to cook, there are days when the evening carpool has me making three different stops, none of which is the grocery store. When everyone arrives home hungry and there’s nothing in the fridge, I’m grateful to order in. And these days there’s so much more than pizza or Chinese takeout. Bite Squad, Grubhub, DoorDash and the like offer delivery from a multitude of restaurants. Even Amazon can bring you your favorite dish if you have a Prime membership. As I gratefully tucked into a hot container of pad Thai recently, I reflected on one of the first food delivery services:  Meals on Wheels.

It started back during World War II in England, when the stout-hearted female volunteers delivered hot meals—sometimes on the wheels of bicycles or even baby carriages—to servicemen. As civilians suffered homelessness and hunger as a result of the Blitz, the need grew even more desperate, so they continued. After the war, it made sense to continue to address the needs of the community’s most vulnerable, primarily the elderly, disabled or ill.

It wasn’t long before the idea caught on everywhere. Of course, communities from every culture, time and place have rallied to support those in need (think of bringing a casserole to a grieving family, a sick friend or a new mother), but this was something new: a formalized program to feed frail or aged people so they could maintain their independence as long as possible. Hundreds of programs sprung up across the U.S. in the post-war years but it was an important amendment to the Older Americans Act, signed by Richard Nixon in 1972, that provided official funding for senior nutrition programs.

Today, Meals on Wheels provides support, training and leadership to more than 5,000 local programs. Nationwide 2 million volunteers deliver healthy, dietitian-approved meals, provide a safety-check and a bit of conversation to those who might otherwise be hungry and isolated. More than 218 million meals were served in 2016, but with an estimated 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, the demands on the program are likely to increase.

This has caused many to worry about the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts to Community Development Block Grants and the Department of Health and Human Services, both of which provide funding for a number of nutrition programs, including Meals on Wheels. While adequate federal support is a concern, every local Meals on Wheels has a slightly different mix of funding sources, including federal and state, but also philanthropic organizations, businesses and individual donors. In Minnesota, according the Meals on Wheels America website, approximately 30 percent of funding comes from the OAA (Older Americans Act).

Studies have shown the positive impact of Meals on Wheels on quality of life and healthcare costs. A 2012 study from Brown University found, after examining 10 years of data, that additional spending on home meal delivery resulted in fewer “low-cost” nursing home residents. These “low- cost” seniors who didn’t require skilled nursing were able to stay in their homes.  Meals on Wheels’ own “More than a Meal” study in 2016 found a consistent drop in hospital stays, emergency room visits, and nursing home use for those who received the meals. Clients also self-report better health, feeling more safe at home and less lonely.

Metro Meals on Wheels, the Twin Cities-based association of local programs, provides meal delivery via “Blizzard Boxes” of shelf-stable food during the winter and fresh produce from local gardeners in the summer.  And this past April, in partnership with Open Arms, they used their own kitchen for meal preparation, which will allows them to cut back on contractor costs and serve more people.  

I’m inspired to support the first—and possibly best—home meal delivery service. The next time I consider ordering out, I might just donate the money I would have spent and make a meal out of something that’s in the fridge. 

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