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Hungry in the West End: Meals on Wheels Feeds the Homebound

Imagine feeding a hot lunch to more than 1,500 people a day—people who live in different parts of Rhode Island, with different needs, tastes and health problems.

Now do it for only $3 per meal.

Meals on Wheels (MOW) pulls off this minor miracle five days a week, thanks to a squadron of cooks and kitchen workers, shoppers and dieticians, truck drivers and volunteers who get hot, fresh food to people all over Rhode Island. It is, to say the least, a challenge.

“You’re trying to please everyone, which is not really possible,” says Michael Marrocco, operations manager for Marra Meal Services. “After all, I think my mother’s cooking is the best, but somebody else might not like it.”

Marra Meals prepares up to 1,700 meals a day in its professional catering kitchen in an East Providence industrial park. Summer or winter, sunshine or rain, the trucks roll. Only heavy snow disrupts the schedule—and when that is forecast, double meals are delivered the day before. For some, the visit from the MOW volunteer is the only human contact they’ll have all day.

For many, the meals provide a lifeline that keeps people too frail to cook out of nursing homes.

The work starts early. The first shift of cooks and kitchen workers arrives around 4 a.m., and sets to work preparing the day’s meals, following a menu drawn up monthly. By 8 a.m., truckloads of red (hot) and blue (cold) insulated coolers are fanning out across Rhode Island.

A dozen salaried drivers transfer the coolers to a fleet of 70 volunteers who distribute the meals. The average volunteer route takes 90 minutes and visits 20 homes. “We do our best to serve healthy, tasty, nutritious food,” says Heather Amaral, MOW’s executive director.

It’s not so easy. Many homebound elderly have health problems like high blood pressure or diabetes, so the chefs have to limit fat, salt and spices, while coming up with meals that appeal to people of all ethnic backgrounds.

They offer a daily alternative, so people have a better chance of finding something they like. An average meal might include fruit juice, barbecued chicken, mashed potatoes, buttered corn, whole wheat bread and fresh fruit, while the alternate choice might be sliced pork au jus. The monthly menu is posted online.

Marrocco’s favorite customer is the anonymous lady who sends back the menu every month, with her opinion of each day’s offering carefully noted: “Good.” “Fair.” “Very good.” “It’s really helpful,” he says. Amaral says a recent survey was encouraging. “We got 500 or 600 responses, and virtually all said the food was better than it was a year or two ago.”

About three-quarters of the meals go to private homes, with the rest served at “congregate” meal sites where people come together to eat, such as senior centers.

You don’t have to be poor to get Meals on Wheels, says Amaral. “You can qualify if you are 60 or older…at the congregate centers, the cut-off age is 55. In general, the people who go to the (congregate) sites are younger and in better shape.” For specifics on who is eligible and how to apply, click here.

The suggested donation is $3 per meal, says Amaral, but in practice people chip in less. “The average we get is $1.60. That amount has decreased in each of the past three years. This year it is down 15 cents. It definitely tracks the economy.” About 64 percent of MOW funding comes from government, the state share of which has been dropping in recent years.

“At one point we were getting $403,000,” she says. By this year that hit a low of $181,000, but in the new budget it ticks back up to $200,000. Making up the difference through donations is getting harder and harder, she says. The agency gets about $400,000 in donations, including things like crackers, soaps and shampoos from supermarket drives.

Often, there isn't enough money to feed all the people who apply. There’s a waiting list for home-delivered meals, which can be as long as six weeks unless someone is in dire straits, she says. “We do pull people out of line based on need, so you might wait a week or you might wait six.”

She says many people find it hard to come forward to say they need help. “We see two things—people tell us, ‘Yes, I can prepare a meal,’ but it’s not a healthy meal. It’s more like cereal and soup. There are a lot of reasons, including physical ability and fatigue. The result is, people are not eating properly for their health condition.”

And even when they do get home-delivered meals, the food doesn’t always reach the intended recipient. “The second thing is people who feed half their meals to their pets. It’s pretty obvious—the driver goes to pick up the coolers and the dishes are licked clean on the floor. It’s a quality of life issue. People love their pets."

Ever flexible, Meals on Wheels has come up with a solution: its Pet Food Pantry, with an array of donated pet food and treats. Pet food is delivered along with the daily meal.

Research funded by the Meals on Wheels Foundation shows some surprising trends. As of 2010, more than 8 million Americans aged 60 or older worried about having enough to eat. The number who actually experienced hunger is lower, at 1.6 million—but that number is more than three times higher than it was in 2001.

“Those increases were most pronounced among the near-poor, whites, widows, non-metro residents, the retired, women, and among households with no grandchildren present,” says “Senior Hunger in America 2010: An Annual Report”. The organization worries that more skipped meals means worse nutrition and exacerbation of chronic illness, which in turn leads to greater “limitations in activities of daily living.”

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