Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Food for Body and Soul / Home-Delivered Meals Offer Nutrition, Conversation

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Food for Body and Soul / Home-Delivered Meals Offer Nutrition, Conversation

Article excerpt

When it comes to home-delivered meals for those who are housebound - often an essential service, either for the physical sustenance the food provides recipients or the peace of mind it yields for their caregivers - there's often too little of something: too few clients to sustain a route; too few volunteers to staff it; or too few dollars to cover the cost of the meals.

The circumstances translate to a situation that leaves pockets of Allegheny County - with its 270,000 residents age 60 or older - at risk of losing a service that brings nutritious food as well as human contact to the front doors of people for whom the visits can mean the difference between staying in their home or being placed elsewhere.

Meals on Wheels has been around for a generation, spawning a dozen or so look-alike agencies. Together, they reach into the corners of Allegheny County and beyond, operating independently while sharing a common goal: to sustain their clients physically and emotionally with meals delivered to their doors, knitting a safety net of human contact for a population that has a limited ability to obtain either without help.

It's mid-morning on a recent Thursday and Carol Lee, 69, of Franklin Park arrives at St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church in Emsworth, where she picks up two coolers packed with meals, one hot, one cold. Today, this volunteer with the North Boroughs- Sewickley Area Meals on Wheels will make three stops to give three elderly men and one woman their two meals for the day. The clients get a delivery each weekday, but the 35-minute route is handled by a different volunteer depending on the day of the week. Mrs. Lee has been doing this at least once a week for 15 years and also serves as the agency's board secretary.

There are 40-some volunteers like Mrs. Lee with this nonprofit "kitchen." Most of the volunteers make a one-day-per-week commitment. The seven routes operated by this branch of Meals on Wheels cover all or parts of about 15 municipalities in the area north of the Ohio River.

Right now, the trouble isn't volunteers; it's clients. Barb Conroy, site manager for the past eight years, said her group has been blessed with enough volunteers, but the number of clients is down to a point where it's difficult to stem the loss the agency takes on the meals it prepares. There are now 55 clients; that number has been as high as 95 and usually hovers around 70. Clients, or their families or a "sponsor," pay $5 per day. That amount doesn't cover expenses, Ms. Conroy said. The financial gap must be closed by donations, another commodity that can be in short supply.

Board president Paul Getz of Emsworth, a volunteer with the organization since it formed about 25 years ago, said most Meals on Wheels kitchens - or MOW kitchens, as they're called - face the same challenges.

"Sometimes it's that we don't have enough volunteers. It's basically seniors serving seniors and there are times that there are gaps," he said.

Then there are the finances. He said the average donation of $5 a day for two meals doesn't fully pay for the cost of food. "Prices for food go nowhere but up. We're absolutely reliant on the generosity of individuals and service groups to help us," he said.

Then there's the issue of a changing client base, which presents its own difficulties.

"One day, someone [new] will want the service right away because they just had knee surgery or some other medical issue and they can't prepare their own meals for a while. They'll drop off in a couple of weeks. Then, someone [who has been a longtime client] decides to move in with a son or daughter or go into a [facility]," he said.

Worst of all, by Mr. Getz's estimation, is that some people may want the service but are reluctant to ask for it because of negative perceptions about needing it.

Erasing a stigma

"We get the sense that some people out there feel like this is welfare. …

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