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Meals on Wheels Making an Impact
By Lindsey Getz

The national program continues to serve seniors with nutritious meals to promote overall health and wellness within local communities.

On a national scale, Meals on Wheels has more than 5,000 locally run programs serving low-income seniors by delivering nutritious meals to their homes or community settings. While Meals on Wheels America is a national advocacy group that raises awareness about senior hunger, the actual Meals on Wheels organizations all are, unbeknownst to many, run autonomously and aren't part of a national collective. Each local group has its own board of directors and runs a bit differently; even the menus differ. But at the end of the day, these local groups are doing much-needed work within their communities when it comes to the aging population.

Meals on Wheels serves individuals whose diminished mobility makes it challenging for them to shop for food or prepare meals. In most cases, the program serves adults aged 60 and older, though age requirements can vary from program to program. In some programs, nutrition is a key focus, and dietitians have opportunities to get involved with menu planning and counseling. Some even volunteer their time to prepare or deliver meals. Other programs are more focused on just solving senior hunger in their region and may even partner with local restaurants to provide free meals.

In most areas, the need for this kind of programming is growing as lifespans are increasing. At Meals on Wheels of Tarrant County in the Fort Worth area of Texas, Keith Harrison, manager of strategic marketing and communications, says already they have more than 5,000 volunteers that deliver one million meals per year in the region—but the need is rapidly growing. In fact, they estimate a 75% increase in services will be needed over the next 15 years as baby boomers continue to age and live longer.

Despite growing needs in Tarrant County as well as other parts of the country, a proposed budget cut is looming. In March, the new presidential administration released the Budget Blueprint, which calls for ending the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program that some states use to fund their local Meals on Wheels initiative. While this isn't the only funding local Meals on Wheels organizations receive, a cut like this—in a time when need is growing—surely will have an impact.

"While each Meals on Wheels program is autonomous and therefore runs its own local fundraising, each of these local programs relies on government funding to some extent," Harrison says. "It's government funding that helps make up the gap between local fundraising efforts and the real need that exists in the community. For some, that gap is larger than others."

Mick Mulvaney, JD, director of the Office of Management and Budget, was quoted in an article saying that Meals on Wheels "sounds great" in theory but that it ultimately has been ineffective. However, Meals on Wheels America has countered that belief, expressing that the program already is stretching inadequate funds to get results.

"Overall, based on available published evidence and years of practice in the field, there's a wealth of data that support the fact that Meals on Wheels programs effectively target those older adults at high risk of poor nutrition and adverse health outcomes, and help them remain as healthy as possible, socially connected, and independent at home in their communities," says Ucheoma O. Akobundu, PhD, RDN, an adjunct assistant professor in the department of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland in College Park, who has been involved with aging research.

Plus, when you start talking to individual programs about the work they're doing, the impact is obvious. "Home-delivered meals are helping our seniors to maintain a level of dignity by keeping them in their homes—where they want to be," Harrison says. "Keeping people in their homes helps them live a better life—but it also saves taxpayer dollars. If we can provide meals and keep the aging population at home, they don't become a taxpayer burden."

Harrison cites a report by the Center for Effective Government indicating that for every dollar invested in a home-delivered meal program, $50 was saved on Medicaid spending.

Another report, funded by the AARP Foundation and conducted by Brown School of Public Health, found that home-delivered meals did more than just provide food; they improved the well-being of older adults by giving them the opportunity for social interaction. Conversely, individuals on waiting lists for home-delivered meals had significantly less social support.

Dietitians, whether or not they have direct involvement, also have many positive things to say about Meals on Wheels. Natalie DiGate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, CSSD, FAAP, a California-based physician, dietitian, and author, says that as a health care provider, she views Meals on Wheels as a highly impactful and cost-effective program.

"We know that quality nutrition helps prevent and treat disease," Muth says. "A person can receive an entire year of Meals on Wheels for the same cost as one day in a hospital. Plus, Meals on Wheels helps seniors to maintain their independence and protects them against social isolation."

"Proper nutrition and hydration are key elements that can possibly prevent hospitalizations or even placement in long term care facilities," says Robin Plotkin, a culinary and nutrition expert and blogger based in Dallas. "Meals on Wheels menus are designed to meet a minimum of one-third of daily nutritional requirements for older adults as required by the state of Texas. This equates to 3 oz protein, two to three servings of fruits and vegetables, one serving of grain, and one serving of milk."

Plotkin has been involved with Meals on Wheels in several capacities including volunteering herself and coordinating volunteers to serve.

"Without Meals on Wheels, thousands of seniors in the North Texas area who are homebound or otherwise unable to provide for themselves would be at risk of hunger and malnutrition," Plotkin says. "Meals on Wheels not only makes a difference in their lives, but it also impacts the lives of the staff and volunteers who serve them each day. I'm grateful to be able to support Meals on Wheels. Volunteering, donating money, or just spreading the word via social media—all of these can help ensure the ongoing support of Meals on Wheels for this population and will help keep the program alive and well in our communities."

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.