Meals on Wheels still rolling after 45 years

In 1967, Meals on Wheels began operating in Richmond. In its 45 years, the organization has provided over 52 million meals to people across the region. What’s in store for their future?

On October 16, 1967, eight Richmond residents were handed a meal from an unusual source: Mayor Morrill Crowe and his wife, Katheryne. Delivering meals to those residents, the mayoral couple marked the launch of the city’s Meals on Wheels service, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this week.

“There isn’t anyone else who does what we do,” said Colleen Keller, Vice President of Programs at Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to individuals made “homebound” through illness or chronic conditions. In 1998, Keller came on as the first full-time dietician for Meals on Wheels. Working her way up, Keller is one-year younger than the organization for which she serves as VP–an organization that was first envisioned back in the 1950s.

In November 1958, representatives from Beth Shalom Home for Aging and the Richmond Council of Women’s Organizations discussed implementing a Meals on Wheels program in RVA after several others had sprouted across the country.1 After an eight-year study, the Richmond Section of the National Council of Jewish Women agreed to sponsor a Richmond program in 1967. Since then, the service has grown a hundredfold.

In its first year, eight daily meals were distributed from a single 20-square-mile route. In 2012, now operating through the FeedMore group, Meals on Wheels delivers approximately 1,000 daily meals to 800 clients over 3,000 square miles2 using 92 routes. Since 1967, the service, one of 5,000 programs nationwide, has delivered over 5.2 million meals to local residents.3 Most of those clients, said Keller, are seniors referred to Meals on Wheels by doctors, hospital staff, and family.

To qualify for meal delivery, clients must be unable to leave their home without considerable difficulty and unable to prepare at least one nutritious meal per day. Clients include individuals who need Meals on Wheels for only a limited time, such as those suffering from an acute medical condition or those recovering from surgery. However, some clients have chronic health issues and don’t receive regular care.

Typically, three chilled (not frozen) meals are delivered once per day, meals which can be heated in about two minutes. Many think that’s where the service of Meals on Wheels ends. In fact, it’s just the beginning.

Volunteers get to know the individuals to whom they deliver meals, said Keller. This can be the only interaction that many clients have in the course of a day, especially seniors who live alone. A value in and of itself, this regular social interaction also carries with it a safeguard.

“We save people’s lives just by showing up,” said Keller. What she means is that delivery volunteers notice when clients don’t answer the door or if the client appears to have suffered a medical episode (e.g. a stroke). The volunteers “immediately know something’s not right,” said Keller, and contact emergency officials and relatives to let them know of a potential health issue. “That’s a really good support system,” she said. That support system, however, is not without cost.

Roughly half of Meals on Wheels financing comes by way of grants from Senior Connections, a Richmond area nonprofit that provides services to those 55 and older. Meals on Wheels also asks for clients to pay as much as possible. Yet the organization and its workers recognize that many can pay very little for their home-delivered meals, if anything.

As such, the rest of funding comes from “the generosity of the community,” said Keller. It’s a generosity that’s helped sustain Meals on Wheels for over 45 years, and one that will likely continue into the future as the need for the service grows.

“The reality is that, the way we’re headed with seniors, there won’t be enough retirement homes” to accommodate aging Baby Boomers, said Keller. Those seniors who can live in a retirement home may instead opt to live in their own home, even if they live alone. Keller expects the need for Meals on Wheels will only increase as a result. “Once the senior boom happens, we’re not going to have enough volunteers” to attend to clients, said Keller.

Whereas the last 45 years saw a geographic expansion of Meals on Wheels, the next 45 years will likely see a more diverse offering of programs and services to address the growing needs of seniors. “It’s really about staying on top of the trends and listening to the customer.”

For instance, instead of focusing solely on homebound individuals who cannot cook for themselves, Meals on Wheels is researching (among other service expansions) ways to provide weekly grocery deliveries to those who may not be able to leave the house, but who are able to cook for themselves. This service may be just one way Meals on Wheels adapts to the future. But even now, Meals on Wheels is more important to the region than it was in 1967.

“I really do think it’s a critical part of our community,” said Keller. “It ultimately makes a difference to our society.”

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  1. Meals on Wheels began in Great Britain during World War II. In 1954, Philadelphia launched the first Meals on Wheels program in the United States. 
  2. Including the cities of: Richmond, Petersburg, Colonial Heights, and Hopewell, as well as the following counties: Charles City, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, Louisa, New Kent, Powhatan, and Prince George. 
  3. According to Feedmore, in 2010 over 160,000 meals were delivered to 736 residents within the city alone. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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