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National Meals On Wheels
Rolls Out Into Rural Areas
By Hilary Gibson, Staff Writer
(Page 1 of 2)

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.

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