Every Friday, Paula Arnold loads up her car and gets ready to make deliveries for Meals on Wheels of the Monterey Peninsula. She has been a volunteer for the program since 1981 — long enough for the Carmel, California, resident to have taken her daughter, her granddaughter and now her 3-year-old grandson along for the ride.
“I want to treat [my recipients] like I would want someone to treat my own parents if they were living,” says Arnold, 69. As for any plans to stop or slow down? She says that’s not likely. “Until I can no longer do it, I think I’ll keep [going].”
Arnold is among the millions of volunteers who help deliver more than 223 million meals a year to 2.4 million older adults at home and in group settings such as senior centers across the country.
This year, Meals on Wheels is celebrating a milestone: March 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program, the federal legislation that provides funding for nutrition services for older adults and helps support programs such as Meals on Wheels.
Fighting hunger and isolation
“Meals on Wheels started as a grassroots movement in communities across the country,” says Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America, which supports the network of Meals on Wheels community programs that operate across the country. (Hollander previously worked for AARP, most recently serving as executive vice president and chief people officer from 2002 to 2010.)
Efforts to address social isolation are just as important as the nutritional aspect of the program, Hollander says. Volunteers like Arnold provide a key source of social connection for meal recipients, more than half of whom live alone. For many recipients, the volunteer delivering their meals may be the only person they see that day.
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“I’ve learned over the years that interacting with [recipients], just giving them a warm hello or showing genuine concern — helping them feel seen — is what’s really the important part of the program,” Arnold says.
Volunteers also serve as what Hollander calls “eyes and ears,” observing whether someone is experiencing physical or mental challenges that might require further attention, and taking note of other needs that should be addressed, like a tripping hazard in someone’s home.
Facing the pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic brought new challenges for Meals on Wheels programs, which had to quickly implement safety protocols to keep both volunteers and recipients safe, Hollander says. That included figuring out how to deliver meals to people’s homes while social distancing and converting senior centers into grab-and-go meal sites — all while facing rising operational costs and increased demands for service and isolation among older adults.
Despite these challenges, deliveries aren't slowing down. In fact, as of July 2021, Meals on Wheels programs were serving an average of 57 percent more meals weekly than before the pandemic began.
“The nutritious meals and visits it provides to older adults have been a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic, when seniors have struggled with greater food insecurity and have often been cut off from friends and family for long periods of time,” says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. “Over the years, AARP Foundation has proudly worked side by side with many great organizations like Meals on Wheels America to achieve our common goals of reducing food insecurity and isolation among older adults.”
June De Sena, 79, of Pacific Grove, California, is one such older adult. At the suggestion of a neighbor, she signed up for Meals on Wheels during the pandemic because of foot and ankle issues that make it difficult to stand while cooking or shopping.
De Sena lives along Arnold’s route in Pacific Grove, and she looks forward to seeing the volunteers who deliver to her apartment five days a week — especially Arnold’s grandson. “I just love him,” De Sena says. And she’s fond of her adult visitors, too. “It’s pretty obvious when they come to the door that they care, that they’re observant [of whether] things are OK. If I had a problem … I know they would help me.”
The future of Meals on Wheels
Despite success in facing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Hollander notes that there’s still more work to be done to fight hunger and isolation across the country. According to one pre-pandemic estimate, 83 percent of low-income, food-insecure older adults eligible for Meals on Wheels were not receiving meals through the program — and by late 2020, nearly 9 in 10 local programs reported an unmet need for home-delivered meals in their communities.
To address this need, Hollander says continued support of Meals on Wheels programs is vital, both in terms of funding (the programs rely on federal funding through the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program, as well as state and local resources and private donations) and advocacy.
“The three things I always ask [of] people are to donate, advocate and volunteer,” she says. “This 50-year model … it’s always been a public-private partnership, and it’s going to have to continue to be.”
As for her vision of Meals on Wheels 50 years in the future? “No matter what, that personal touch is really important,” Hollander says. “Fifty years from now … we still want to be able to have that face-to-face connection.”
Sarah Elizabeth Adler joined aarp.org as a writer in 2018. Her pieces on science, art and culture have appeared in The Atlantic, where she was previously an editorial fellow, California magazine and elsewhere.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the relationship between Meals on Wheels America and Meals on Wheels community programs.