For nearly half a century, Ruth Donnell, 92, and Betty Smith, 89, have been packing lunch boxes and repurposed bread heels to wow Freeport Area Meals on Wheels customers with a culinary rarity – homemade bread pudding.
“The reason I do it is to help people who couldn’t help themselves,” Donnell said. “We started in the days before there were chalkboards and other ways to get meals.”
It is uncertain how long the Meals on Wheels programs will continue in the region. The ravages of time and the lack of new volunteers are putting programs at risk.
Two programs — Kinloch in Lower Burrell and Highlands in Harrison — closed this year, largely because they didn’t have enough volunteers. That leaves Westmoreland County and the Alle-Kiski Valley with about a dozen programs in total.
Meals on Wheels is an important lifeline for many seniors. The programs are invaluable to immobile residents on a fixed income, and volunteers who deliver meals conduct unofficial welfare checks on recipients.
Each program is an independent non-profit organization funded by meal fees and donations, so what each program offers is different. But often it’s hot and cold meals — for just $2.50 per meal — delivered multiple days a week. Some programs deliver daily.
The local programs receive no grants or government subsidies, making logistics a challenge.
Jamie Nee, director of social work at Allegheny Health Network, said the Kinloch and Highlands programs have been big losses.
“Meals on Wheels programs are very important when we’re bringing patients home from the hospital,” Nee said. “Not having them available in the Alle Kiski Valley area is a significant loss.”
Some programs stable, others wobble
Not all Meals on Wheels programs are challenged by an inconsistent number of volunteers.
The Latrobe Meals on Wheels program is progressing well but could have more riders, said Kay Elder, manager of the program, which serves Latrobe, Youngstown and parts of Derry.
The program partners with Excela Health Latrobe Hospital, which prepares hot meals delivered by volunteers. The program pays the hospital for meals at a reduced rate of $3 per meal. Churches that offer lunch give them out for free.
“It’s wonderful what Latrobe is doing,” said Elder. “The program would not be possible without the help of the hospital.”
The Latrobe program serves 48 customers at any given time and has a four to five month wait list.
“We’re all volunteers,” Elder said. “We get up early in the morning to make sandwiches five days a week. That’s all you can ask,” she said.
Elder acknowledges that volunteering isn’t as strong as it used to be.
“Our church crews who make our sandwiches are getting older, and it’s getting harder to make those sandwiches,” Elder said.
Demand for delivered meals for seniors on a budget will continue to rise, experts say.
“It is imperative that as a nation we increase our support for Meals on Wheels programs if seniors are not to be left hungry and alone,” said Susan Waldman, spokesperson for Meals on Wheels America, a national nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia, which works with more than 5,000 community-based, independent eating programs.
Nationally, pre-Covid-19 demographic projections projected that the number of seniors in America would double by 2060, Walden said.
“It’s very clear that we need to dramatically increase investment in the proven meal-on-wheels solution to see the nation through the decades to come,” she said.
While many programs cite problems with maintaining a steady flow of volunteers, some programs that attract volunteers from multiple congregations are not feeling the pinch.
The Freeport Area Meals program was established nearly 50 years ago, with many churches participating by offering cooking teams.
“We don’t just have one or two people to rely on. We have seven communities that cook,” said Sally Coyne, director of the Freeport Area Program, which includes residents in Freeport, Buffalo Township, South Buffalo, Slate Lick, Saxonburg, West Winfield and Cabot. “Responsibility has been shared”
This is not the case for communities in the Fox Chapel Area School District.
“We need customers, volunteers and money,” said Sue Ellen Nugent, board chair and volunteer for the Aspinwall program, which serves most of the communities in the school district. “We are still viable. But we are always changing – customer health can change, then there are deaths and people moving into a retirement home. But we keep going.”
Volunteers are always needed at the Vandergrift program, said Sarabeth Stopansky, President of the Program Board.
“We’re not like Kinloch or Highlands – we’re not closing in any way,” she said. Kinloch donated £150 to £200 of its canned vegetables when it closed in late July.
Stopansky is 65 and her husband is 69 – and they are among the youngest of the volunteers.
Currently the program has 45 volunteers and approximately 50 clients in Vandergrift, East Vandergrift, North Vandergrift and part of Parks, West Leechburg and Allegheny Township.
“Twenty years from now it will be a miracle if the program is still around unless more people are willing to volunteer,” said Nancy McGraw, 74, board secretary.
The Vandergrift program’s client and volunteer numbers have declined somewhat compared to 10 to 20 years ago, even though it offers fresh, home-cooked meals on weekdays for $3 a day.
But there are alternative options, McGraw said. Some health plans offer meal delivery coverage for medically qualified members. There are private companies like Mom’s Meals that deliver meals in the area.
Delmont Meals on Wheels — with 56 customers — has a steady stream of volunteers, said Lori Harr, who oversees customer intake. The program includes residents in Delmont, Mamont, Trees Mills, Hoffman Heights, Slickville and part of Washington Township.
“We’ve remained pretty stable,” Harr said. The program works with parishioners from local churches, which strengthens the volunteer ranks. “We’re losing volunteers, but someone’s making an appearance.”
Smashed by the pandemic
Meals on Wheels programs have faced increased demand during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to national and local reports from program officials.
At the national level, increased demand has stressed programs with a limited number of volunteers, said Waldman, spokeswoman for the national organization. Some programs have been shut down while others have merged with other organizations, she said.
The local district agency for aging programs has seen an increase in demand for hot meals delivered.
In Allegheny County, 3,284 customers were served home-delivered meals in fiscal 2018-19 before the pandemic, compared to 3,616 customers in fiscal 2021-22, a 10% increase.
In Westmoreland County, county-delivered meals for seniors increased 24% from 493 customers in fiscal 2018-19 to 612 in fiscal 2021-22.
“The growing senior population in Allegheny County and the fact that our meal programs have received much more attention during the Covid-19 pandemic due to the overwhelming need to get food to people’s homes is likely the source of these numbers,” Jennifer said Baker, Senior Centers and Nutrition Programs Supervisor for the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging.
Although Covid numbers have begun to stabilize, Allegheny County’s meal programs have not returned to pre-Covid numbers, she said.
In Westmoreland County, Carrie Nelson, an administrator at the Area Agency on Aging in Greensburg, said it’s difficult to comment on trends in demand for home-delivered meals, but said there are many older adults in the community who are food insecure .
“In contrast, the Meals on Wheels programs play a crucial role,” she said.
When Covid hit, the national nonprofit Meals on Wheels saw double demand, Walden said.
“Taken together, these circumstances suggest that meals-on-wheels programs, which are already struggling to keep up with demand, will get the job done over the next few decades,” Walden said.
The American Community Survey estimates that by 2030, more than one in five Pennsylvanians will be aged 65 or older.
Where there is no Meals on Wheels program, AHN utilizes its AHN Healthy Food Centers in some hospitals, where patients with a doctor’s referral can pick up pre-packaged boxes of fresh produce and nutritious items.
“We had to get creative to address the needs of our patients and families in the Valley,” Nee said.
Other programs include UPMC for Life Complete Care. Home-delivered meals are available after an inpatient hospitalization, observational stay, or stay in a qualified care facility.
Humana At Home offers meals from a Humana dealer, delivered by FedEx or UPS.
With delivery services like DoorDash and Grubhub, there are plenty of options — but at a price.
“Those who can afford nutritious meals and have the mobility to get out and shop or stand over a stove and cook may be well served with some of these other options,” Waldman said.
Other programs, such as meal programs in senior centers, target seniors who struggle with nutrition and socializing and remain important, she said.
The scene is similar every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning at the Freeport United Methodist Church.
Fragrances waft from the community hall where a cadre of volunteers cook, organize and deliver hot and cold meals to 43 local residents.
On a recent Friday, breaded pork chops, parsley-buttered pasta and apple chips – all homemade – were paired with a large lunch bag filled with a turkey and cheese sandwich, bread, hard-boiled egg, banana, homemade biscuits, granola and graham crackers – all for $3.
A customer celebrating a birthday received a gift bag with a card and a miniature homemade birthday cake.
Donnell and Smith are parishioners of the church.
The program isn’t as busy as it was when the couple started nearly half a century ago, Smith said.
“That was before there were a lot of nursing homes like we have now,” she said. “More people in the high-rises are going to the senior centers to eat.”
But she added, “There is still a need.”