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More Than Just a Meal: Solving the Hidden Epidemic of Senior Hunger with Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels volunteer delivers food to a senior at his home

“Local Meals on Wheels programs never cease to amaze me,” Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of the nonprofit Meals on Wheels America, told TriplePundit in a recent interview. “Every one of them has gone above and beyond consistently for probably 20 months now.” 

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, Meals on Wheels programs around the country have been feeding hundreds of thousands more seniors. At the peak in summer 2020, programs were delivering twice as many meals compared to pre-pandemic times. By July of 2021, programs were still serving an average of 57 percent more home-delivered meals each week. With all that COVID-19 has put us through as a society at large, the eldest among us may have a harder time bouncing back, Hollander explains, and an estimated 80 percent of programs say the new clients they’ve found are here to stay.

That’s a lot to take in, especially as the population of Americans 65 and older continues to rise, and the vast majority of Meals on Wheels programs say they doubt they are meeting all the needs of their communities, even though the programs are already financially strapped. The pandemic has shined a light on the growing epidemic of isolation and hunger in seniors, Hollander said, and Meals on Wheels programs are showing how a simple meal can create ripple effects across these seniors’ lives. 

Providing for seniors’ increased needs during the pandemic

Nearly all Meals on Wheels programs reworked their services at the outset of the pandemic. Yes, they had to suspend group dining, but they also put together grab-and-go drive-through sites nearly overnight. Recognizing the broader impact Meals on Wheels has on seniors, many programs also supplemented their meal delivery with friendly phone call check-ins, Zoom gatherings, driveway visits, card writing, and other ways to ensure seniors in their communities knew they weren’t alone and that someone was thinking about them.

One volunteer in Saint Paul, Minnesota, told the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation: “Obviously it feels more remote, but I’m really excited that we can still meet the needs of the people in the community. At a time like this we have to remember that we’re human and we have to take care of each other.”

How is a meal more than a meal for solitary seniors?

Despite the name, Meals on Wheels gives more than food. There’s more going on than meets the eye, Hollander said, adding that for so many seniors, the individual who delivers their meals is the only person they see during the week. Knowing this, staff and volunteers go above and beyond to be the eyes and ears in a home, making sure to notice if something needs special attention. 

When she asks a client about the impact they feel from Meals on Wheels, Hollander said they often say the meal is important, but the socialization, companionship and check-ins mean just as much. 

In Scarborough, Maine, for example, client Edith hadn't seen family or friends in months amidst COVID-19 lockdowns, but her Meals on Wheels volunteer, Candy, has dropped by regularly for the last eight years. One day last year, Edith had a fall and couldn't pick herself up or reach a phone. Candy knew something was wrong when Edith didn't come to the door and immediately called 911. Edith was rushed to a hospital and nursed to health, filled with gratitude that Candy was there in her time of need. 

Beyond the wellness checks, 90 percent of clients say Meals on Wheels helps them continue living independently. From an economic perspective, helping seniors continue living happily and healthily on their own saves on unnecessary spending. Meals on Wheels calculates that serving a senior meals for a year costs about as much as one day in a hospital or 10 days in a nursing home. The economic burden of senior malnutrition adds up to $51 billion, and Medicare expenditures associated with social isolation in seniors cost almost $7 billion a year. 

"We need to continue to meet homebound seniors where they are,” Hollander said. “And when you give a little bit or a lot to Meals on Wheels, you're actually supporting local programs that brighten these dark days for America’s seniors. This holiday season and all year round, we want to ensure that no senior is hungry and alone, and we need everyone's help to do that."

Subaru donates vehicles to Meals on Wheels
On its 50th anniversary, Subaru of America donated 50 Outback SUVs to Meals on Wheels for use as delivery vehicles. 

Meeting seniors where they are during the holiday season

The holidays can be particularly difficult for seniors living alone. During times of high need like these chilly months of winter, longstanding partnerships can lighten a nonprofit’s load. It’s up to each company to decide how they will contribute, but some Meals on Wheels partners provide useful examples. The Home Depot Foundation, for example, funds home repairs and modifications for veterans and their families, fixing safety hazards, installing wheelchair ramps, and doing critical repairs. The foundation has donated more than $11 million since 2015, alongside volunteer hours.

Subaru of America has included Meals on Wheels as one of the four featured national charities in its annual Share the Love Event for the past 14 years. During the event, which is still active through the start of 2022, Subaru donates $250 to a customer’s chosen charity for every new vehicle purchase or lease. Over the years, the automaker’s donations have helped deliver over 2.5 million meals. Separate from the Subaru Share the Love Event, on its 50th anniversary, Subaru of America donated 50 Outback SUVs to the nonprofit, recognizing the need for more wheels to deliver more meals, Hollander said. And this year, some Meals on Wheels programs have partnered with local Subaru retailers to create emergency blizzard kits and shelf-stable meals and deliver them in borrowed vehicles.

“I believe, and I've worked for many companies that would agree, that companies that do good and give back, frankly, do well,” Hollander told us. Companies that want to make a difference can donate, volunteer or advocate, she said. With three-quarters of Meals on Wheels programs worrying they’ll lose financial support but maintain the same load of clients after the pandemic, now is the time for businesses to reach out to their local programs as they continue to help those most in need. 

This article series is sponsored by Subaru and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team. 

Images courtesy of Meals on Wheels America

Roya Sabri headshotRoya Sabri

Roya is a writer and graphic designer based in Kailua Kona, HI. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. Find her on LinkedIn

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