clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

I've served more than 15,000 Meals on Wheels. It's about way more than food.

It’s about companionship for people who really need it.

Government Assistance Programs Aid Underprivileged Communities In New York State Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Even though it was 15 years ago, I still remember the first time I helped deliver Meals on Wheels.

I was in college at the time, I had very little clue what the program even was. All I knew was that a lady from my campus church was asking for volunteers to help her deliver meals to nearby seniors.

So, I met up with her and the other volunteers in my 1983 Plymouth Colt at a nearby senior center to pick up the food. The hot meals of sliced turkey with a side of mixed vegetables and mashed potatoes were ready to go, hand packed in aluminum containers with a lid to keep them warm. They also loaded us up with milk, juice, and rolls.

Our volunteer leader had a list of addresses we would be driving to, mostly very small apartments, and we stuck together because she knew the route. This was in the days when people wrote directions down with a pen and a piece of paper. GPS devices like Garmins were considered a luxury.

Whether it was due to youthful optimism or my extroverted personality, I don’t remember feeling nervous about visiting complete strangers in their homes. I remember telling myself that it would be sort of like trick-or-treating, but in reverse. I would ring the doorbell, someone about four times my age would answer the door, they’d be the one receiving food, and I’d be on my way.

But my assumptions about a speedy drop-off were quickly dashed. I would learn that for many of these folks, I was their only human contact for the day, and boy did they want to savor every moment of it! Almost without exception, I was greeted with a joy I wasn’t accustomed to. It was a sort of a “Christmas morning” expression of thanks and gratitude, followed by stories, questions, and laughter.

“Come in! Come in! Thank you so much for coming today! I’ve been hoping for someone to stop by.”

“Hoping?” I thought to myself. I tried to hide my puzzlement while I asked where they would like their meals placed. Many of the seniors had physical limitations, so as we chatted about their day (and they asked about mine) I wanted to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently putting something out of reach. Some folks would buy two meals, one for now and one to save for dinner.

After visiting the fourth or fifth apartment I finally realized why everyone was so eager to see me at their doorstep. Just as Halloween isn’t all about the candy, Meals on Wheels is about more than the food.

It’s about people.

Meals on Wheels goes beyond home delivery

As a volunteer, I didn’t realize that serving those meals in aluminum trays would help me land my first job. After graduating from college, I started tutoring in after-school programs while I looked for a full-time work. This was during the No Child Left Behind era, and I worked mainly in River Rouge, a small industrial town downriver of Detroit.

Scheduling with my company was erratic, and sometimes they had trouble funding our paychecks on time. So, when I saw a job posting for an adult day care center in Wayne County, I decided to tweak my resume yet again and apply. At the time I didn’t really know what an adult day care was, but I knew I enjoyed visiting the seniors with the Meals on Wheels program. I threw that on my resume and secured not just an interview, but the job as well.

Adult day care is a program for adults with cognitive or other limitations who cannot be safely left home alone during the day. Family caregivers bring their loved ones to the program so they can go to work or simply have some respite time to recharge. Trained staff provide social interaction with structured activities as well as assistance with eating, using the restroom, and some medications.

It turned out that this adult day care also participated in Meals on Wheels. By partnering with our local senior center we were able to keep costs low for everyone while providing a nutritious meal for our participants. It was actually one of the main features we used to market ourselves in the community — that a senior could get a nutritious hot meal, five days a week, for $2.25 at our program.

Once again, I found myself getting in my 1983 Plymouth Colt to drive to the nearby senior center to pick up Meals on Wheels. This time, I would transport the meals back to the seniors in adult day care.

Usually, the senior center would have the meals ready and waiting to be picked up by me at the front door. But on occasion I got there a little early, or the volunteers and staff in the kitchen were running late, so I would walk inside to pick up the meals.

When I would walk into the senior center, I couldn’t believe the amount of commotion and talking as people gathered around tables for lunch. The kitchen that prepared the meals for deliveries also served lunch to seniors who could gather there. The energy in that room at lunchtime was so vibrant it was almost overwhelming. I felt like I was back in my college dorm cafeteria.

It became clear to me, again, that Meals on Wheels wasn’t just about the food. It’s about a group of widows meeting up for lunch at the senior center to talk and laugh with one another. It’s about a group of Alzheimer’s patients in a day care getting to enjoy the taste of food together, one of the few things they haven’t yet forgotten. It’s about a 19-year-old volunteer knocking on your door to ask about your day.

So when I heard that funding for Meals on Wheels might be getting axed in the president’s budget proposal because the program is “ineffective,” this is what you’re telling me:

That the time I spent going door to door, chatting and delivering food to vulnerable seniors, was ineffective. That the care I provided in helping Alzheimer’s patients eat nutritious meals safely was ineffective. That the innumerable volunteers from sea to shining sea who serve our country’s greatest generation with the support and dignity of a hot meal and human interaction are ineffective.

Slashing federal funding is the last thing we need

I realize that the proposed cuts to the federal block grant program can seem like small potatoes when compared to the cuts that some other agencies are facing. The Department of Education is eyeing a $9.2 billion slash. For the Department of Health and Human Services, it’s $15.1 billion.

But the reality is that Meals on Wheels, like many other social service programs, is already strapped for resources. I can attest, as I eventually became the manager who would apply for grants and pay the bills at the adult day care, that many programs for seniors are already operating on a shoestring budget from a patchwork of funding sources. Under these conditions, any cut to funding is alarming.

The Community Development Block Grant program, set to be eliminated entirely in the proposed budget, is one of the federal sources that helps support Meals on Wheels and other social service programs at the local level. While some have pointed to the Community Development Block Grant program and argued that federal funding doesn’t make up that much of Meals on Wheels overall budget, this is not the case. In total, Meals on Wheels programs across the country receive 35 percent of their funding through the federal government.

While details to the proposed 17.9 percent cut to Health and Human Services haven’t been ironed out yet, it’s more than likely Meals on Wheels programs stand to lose even more funding if the budget were enacted into law.

Meals on Wheels reports that it is delivering 23 million fewer meals annually compared to a little over a decade ago. This has taken place while our population has been growing older, not younger, and the demand for services will only continue to rise.

If anything, we should be talking about providing greater support for Meals on Wheels, not less. The baby boomers have only started to trickle into retirement. Will we be able to meet their needs as they age?

“It takes a village to raise a child,” is a proverb we hear repeated often. But I’ve found it to be true for elder care as well. It takes a village to support our elders, one of our country’s most vulnerable populations. To put this in terms that the White House might understand, it takes an army.

But whether it’s the Meals on Wheels program, or health care reform, the message we keep hearing from the administration is, “you’re on your own.”

Which misses the point of what a meals program is. It’s not just about the numbers; it’s more than just the food.

It’s about the people.

Justin Zarb, in a former life, was an assisted living, home care, and adult day care manager. He now enjoys home schooling his two children, volunteering for causes he believes in, and writing about the political revolution. Read more here.

This article was originally published on Medium.

First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at