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Viewpoints: Benefits of Meals on Wheels go far beyond food delivery

By Daniel Baldwin Hess
and Alex Bitterman

The nonprofit organization Meals on Wheels delivers not only food, but much more.

However, under the federal budget proposed by President Trump, continuation of the vital services offered by Meals on Wheels is in jeopardy.

Meals on Wheels of Western New York provides over 1 million meals to our elderly and disabled neighbors each year. In addition, it provides an additional quarter million meals for residents of the Erie County Home and other nursing facilities.

How exactly does Meals on Wheels work? Disabled individuals and participants over age 60 are visited once per day by volunteer delivery people, and two meals – one hot, one cold – are delivered. Payment is by donation ($7 per day is suggested), but no eligible person is refused service. Participants choose which days each week they are in need of meal delivery. Third parties, including social service agencies and charities, may donate on behalf of clients. Meals are prepared in central kitchens and distributed to volunteer drivers at community pickup points.

Typically, most Meals on Wheels recipients are older adults who find it difficult to regularly shop for groceries or cook and whose nutritional status and health could be imperiled without the vital service offered by Meals on Wheels. However, the benefits go beyond food delivery. Many Meals on Wheels recipients live alone and lack ready access to transportation and/or have physical or health challenges that limit mobility and independence. For some, interacting with a Meals on Wheels delivery driver may be their only face-to-face contact on a given day. Volunteers are trained to notify the Department of Senior Services if a recipient is unwell or in need of help.

Nearly two-thirds of Meal on Wheels clients live alone, and a daily visit from a meal delivery organization can provide a sense of regularity for the recipient and vital peace of mind for family members and loved ones who cannot visit as often as they would like. Most importantly, Meals on Wheels represents a lifeline that helps older adults remain in their homes and delay or avoid a costly relocation to another residence with relatives or friends or an institution such as a nursing home or assisted living facility. Ultimately, by keeping older people living in familiar surroundings where they feel comfortable, Meals on Wheels saves the cost of elder care for individuals and families while reducing a burden on our health care system. This can help older adults maintain confidence, foster independence, nurture a sense of purpose and live with dignity.

Approximately 16 percent of the population in Erie County is over the age of 65, more than the U.S. average for this age bracket. Many of these residents live in first-ring suburbs, such as Kenmore, the Town of Tonawanda and Cheektowaga. However, some elderly and disabled clients live in rural areas where access to supermarkets or restaurants is an even greater challenge. Among older adults in Erie County, 32 percent have a disability, 17 percent do not have access to an automobile and 8 percent live below the poverty line. These complicating circumstances, along with fair or poor health and increasing dependence on others, can result in isolation that negatively impacts well-being.

Meals on Wheels volunteers report that connection with older adults can be a very gratifying experience. Americans do not tend to value senior citizens in the same manner that other societies do. Taking part in a Meal on Wheels program can give volunteers a chance for one-on-one connection with older adults that can enrich lives for volunteers as well as those in need.

In some suburban towns, such as Amherst and Kenmore-Tonawanda, Meals on Wheels is operated as a stand-alone not-for-profit, while clients in other parts of Buffalo Niagara may be eligible through the regionwide Meals on Wheels of Western New York organization. These entities share the same mission and are dependent on volunteer drivers and coordinators. In addition, financial support comes from community donations, but federal funding makes up the bulk of Meals on Wheels budgets. Subsidies filter through community development block grants and various federal, state and county agencies, such as the Erie County Department of Senior Services.

Sadly, federal support is now at risk due to drastic budget cuts proposed by the current presidential administration. Without vital federal support, volunteers would have little to deliver apart from kindness and compassion, which, though appreciated, cannot fill the stomach or bolster the dignity of a hungry, elderly neighbor in need. Ironically, the amount of federal funding received directly or indirectly by Meals on Wheels of Western New York is equivalent to the amount expended from the federal budget to provide President Trump and his entourage with a security detail for a single weekend visit to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida mansion. By forgoing golf and lavish dinners and by staying home for one weekend, Trump could subsidize Meals on Wheels in Western New York for the region’s elderly and disabled for one full year.

This uncertain political climate produces feelings of discomfort for many people about retrenchment of government support for long-standing community and social services.

Now is an important time to renew our commitment to Meals on Wheels and other support programs that aid our neighbors, parents and grandparents. We must be vigilant about safeguarding services that improve the lives of older Americans. Why?

Because one day, before long, you may find yourself wishing for a friendly face and a hot meal in your senior years. It would be comforting to do so without political strings attached.

Daniel Baldwin Hess is professor of urban and regional planning in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo. Alex Bitterman is chairman of the department of architecture and design at Alfred State College, SUNY College of Technology.

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