For About and By Caregivers
National Meals On Wheels
Rolls Out Into Rural Areas

By  Hilary Gibson, Staff Writer


The history of the Meals on Wheels program goes back to 1939 Great Britain, during World War II and the German Blitz. Thousands upon thousands of people lost their homes and had no way of cooking meals for their families. The Women’s Volunteer Service for Civil Defense of Great Britain recognized the problem and began preparing and delivering meals to their less-fortunate neighbors. The same women volunteers also brought refreshments on carts or “canteens” to soldiers. Soon these canteens became known as “Meals on Wheels,” making this the first organized nutrition program anywhere.

In 1954, the United States decided to try an experimental version of their own “Meals on Wheels” concept, with many of the early volunteers consisting of high school students who would deliver meals to those in need. What began with only seven seniors, blossomed into a home-delivered and congregate meal program that now serves millions of disabled and at-risk people, as well as seniors, all over the country. The program specializes in meeting the dietary needs of hundreds-of-thousands of homebound seniors and other “shut-ins” on a daily basis, all of whom would normally have gone hungry. Today, there are over 20,000 federally funded and privately sponsored Meals on Wheels programs, with over 250 million meals served each year in communities across the country. Hot and frozen foods are available to people who have difficulty in preparing their own nutritious meals, either on a short-term or long-term basis. Through prior arrangement, a hot meal or meals can be delivered to a person’s home. There are no eligibility criteria regarding age, income, sex, religion, race, ethnicity or disability.

With the ability to offer individually packaged, frozen meals, the Meals on Wheels program can now reach those in rural areas that may be hard to get to otherwise, with foods that are simple to reheat as needed. While delivery of hot meals can vary from 2 days per week to 5 days per week, frozen foods can be ordered on a monthly basis for delivery in bulk. Support for the expansion of the program into rural areas around the country has come from the National Meals on Wheels Foundation, and from partnerships with major corporations, as well as grants from nonprofits such as the United Way.  Aside from receiving much-needed food, the Meals on Wheels program also offers something else that is very important to those in rural areas…interaction and socialization with another person…the drivers who deliver the meals. Drivers like to see how the people on their route are doing, and in some areas, drivers have even taken special courses enabling them to recognize the signs of possible elder abuse and neglect.

While Meals on Wheels has been readily available in an urban and suburban setting, their expansion into the more rural parts of our country is relatively recent. Meals on Wheels recognized that rural areas usually have a higher number of older persons in their total population than what is found in urban areas. Also, because there are so few people and because grocery stores are so widely scattered throughout most rural areas, the distance to a supermarket can be a significant obstacle to getting healthy, nutritional food, especially for elderly residents. Most of the grocery stores in rural areas are small, convenience-type stores that carry very little variety, and may not have the appropriate foods needed for certain special dietary needs of the elderly. The small size and rural location of these stores also makes food prices more expensive, with the cost being almost 4% higher than the cost of food in urban and suburban grocery stores, making it difficult for the rural elderly to afford a meal. Yet another obstacle for the elderly or disabled in getting food is the fact that about half of all rural counties, including the most isolated areas, have no form of public transportation. The lower the population in a rural area, the less likely it is that public transportation services exist, and if they do, they are usually fewer, less accessible, and farther away than in urban or suburban areas.

With all of the obvious food problems existing for the rural elderly, why then don’t some of the federally funded programs like food stamps help with keeping them from going hungry? According to one economic report, the decline of food stamp use in rural areas is really because of the difficulty found in accessing food stamps and the establishments at which they can be redeemed, not because of a decrease in the need for them, so the issue of accessibility and transportation is a reoccurring theme in the inability to keep the rural elderly from going hungry. Also, poverty and unemployment rates are higher and earnings are lower in rural America than in metropolitan areas, with the rural elderly more likely to be poorer than the urban elderly, so they have far less savings left for the necessary things of life, such as food. There are roughly 200 counties in the United States considered to be extremely poor, with 189 of the 200 poverty-stricken counties found in rural areas. These poor, rural areas are concentrated mostly in the South, Appalachia, the Ozarks, Mississippi Delta, Rio Grande Valley and on Native American reservations in the Southwest and Northern Plains.

Whether you’re a family caregiver close by or far away, your loved one may be eligible for Meals on Wheels if they:

  • their own meals

  • have great difficulty utilizing kitchen appliances and equipment

  • don’t have the proper skills to do so

  • have no motivation to prepare a meal, due to the loss of a spouse or depression

  • don’t have anyone in close proximity that may be able to cook his or her meals

  • don’t have adequate cooking facilities, live alone and have become homebound  during the winter months

  • are recuperating from surgery or a serious illness

For most of us, the thought of people going hungry conjures up images of urban projects or third-world countries. It’s inconceivable that people in farming communities don’t have enough to eat, especially since there are acres and acres of fertile ground yielding an amazing abundance and variety of healthy food, which feeds this country and the rest of the world. With 1 in 10 rural households dealing with hunger as an issue every day, Meals on Wheels has their work cut out for them, trying to overcome other rural challenges that contribute to hunger, such as isolation, with neighbors being too far away and unavailable to assist the elderly, and communication problems like rural elderly who can’t afford a telephone.  

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