Home-delivered meals offer nutrition, conversation in Allegheny County and beyond

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 covers 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. There’s a stigma. And we work so hard for people to understand that we consider it our mission to get them the help they need, whether it’s for a few weeks or years,” he said.

On a recent Thursday, the hot lunch is a marinated chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and peas and carrots. The second meal is a sandwich on whole wheat, filled with at least seven slices of salami, and a cinnamon roll for dessert. Quarts of cold milk are disbursed to clients on Mondays.

Ray Ott, 87, of Ohio Township, the final stop on Mrs. Lee’s route, said: “I don’t care so much about the food as I do about the conversation. Older people need communication.” And his three grown children have peace of mind in knowing that healthy meals are coming and that people are laying eyes on their father, who has been living alone since his wife, Florence, died in 2001. In fact, Mrs. Lee has been a virtual lifesaver for Mr. Ott — figuratively and literally. One day when she showed up a number of years ago, she heard him calling from outside, behind his home. He had fallen into a creek and couldn’t get out.

Ask someone on the street about home-delivered meals programs, and people will think you’re talking about Meals on Wheels. In reality, Meals on Wheels — the best known of a number of similar volunteer outreaches in Allegheny County that sometimes generically are known as meals-on-wheels — is a specific program that got its start during World War II in Europe. It spread to the U.S. in 1954 in Philadelphia, arriving in Allegheny County in 1968.

The first Meals on Wheels kitchen in Western Pennsylvania was on the North Side, operated under the auspices of the nonprofit Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania in Bellevue. Since then, and until a few weeks ago, the clusters of volunteers who make up the dozens of Meals on Wheels sites were loosely affiliated with Lutheran Service. But, circumstances — increasing supervision costs, legal liability concerns, a duplication of effort in some territories from similar service providers, limitations on Lutheran Service’s ability to accept donated food items (a limitation that doesn’t exist for the individual kitchens) — combined to result in a cessation of that relationship which, over the years, had drained more than half of Lutheran Service’s annual operating funds and had burdened the individual sites with a stack of paperwork and oversight regulations. Now, all sites in Allegheny County are independent and Lutheran Service exists as their cheerleader instead of as official sponsor.

“Meals on Wheels is one of the most worthy outreaches there is,” said Patty Davidson, chief development officer for Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania. “Over the years, we’ve done a lot of bench marking and we know that this service makes a critical difference for many people — for people who need it most.”

One of the biggest issues for the program was a steady drop in clients, Ms. Davidson said. Her sense is two main reasons are at the root of that: competition from other programs and a burgeoning trend toward “retirement” communities that provide service.

Still, “a lot of the clients we have are the ones who have the fewest choices. They need Meals on Wheels the most,” she said.

Ten meals for $25 

Currently, the average “price” — it’s actually considered a donation — for 10 delivered meals per week is about $25, Ms. Davidson said.

As of December 2013, Allegheny County had about a dozen Meals on Wheels kitchens, including sites in Coraopolis, serving the West Hills area; Carson Towers, serving the South Side; Carnegie; Clairton; South Park; Elizabeth, serving Elizabeth-Forward; Hazelwood; and Monroeville. In the late 1990s, the county had about 30 sites.

As of late 2013, Meals on Wheels sites in Allegheny County were serving about 500 people per day and some 1,700 unduplicated clients per year.

While the Meals on Wheels of America website emphasizes the nutritious and quantitative value of the 10 meals per week — five hot and five cold — that are delivered on weekdays, Ms. Davidson said she thinks an equally precious component of the program is one that sets the program apart from many others: the face-to-face visit. “There’s personal contact and conversation. And that can mean that someone who has had a medical emergency gets seen. Or it can mean that, even if nothing dramatic is going on, a senior who can get very lonely gets to see a human being, have a human interaction. It might be the only one of the day.”

The second major contact for home-delivered meals in Allegheny County is the Area Agency on Aging. Marian Matik, administrative officer for the AAA nutrition program, said the program employs the same premise as Meals on Wheels but the particulars are different: one meal is delivered per day and the days can extend into the weekends, depending on the client’s need. Participants must be 60 or older and be unable to provide themselves with a meal — either because of financial or physical limitations. (With Meals On Wheels, anyone who wants to participate can. No threshold for participation exists.) While donations are accepted, they are not required. The food is free. No one can be turned away. Meals can be hot, cold or frozen.

Area Agency on Aging subcontracts the service with a dozen or so agencies in the county, including Catholic Youth Association of Pittsburgh in Lawrenceville, Eastern Area Adult Services in Turtle Creek, East End Cooperative Ministry in East Liberty, Hill House Association in the Hill District, Jewish Association on Aging in Squirrel Hill, LifeSpan Inc. in Homestead, Northern Area Multi-Service Center in Sharpsburg, Penn Hills Senior Center in Penn Hills, Plum Senior Center in Plum, Riverview Community Action Corp. in Oakmont, and Wilkinsburg Community Ministry in Wilkinsburg.

At the Catholic Youth Association of Pittsburgh, located in an old brick school building in Lawrenceville, the “home-delivered meals program” — nicknamed HDM but commonly referred to as “meals-on-wheels” — is a bustling place most mornings.

Maureen Fay, site manager, said food arrives prepared from the Metz Culinary Association, a catering service in Ambridge, and is divided into single meals that are delivered to 142 clients in Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Stanton Heights, East Liberty, Homewood, Wilkinsburg and Shadyside. “We do about 200 meals a day with a staff that’s a combination of volunteers and part-time paid staff,” Ms. Fay said.

The work amounts to a calling.

“I think we all realize that we’re giving our [clients] something to look forward. And it’s not just about good, nutritious food. It’s that someone will come to your house and talk to you. We’re kind of a watch dog,” she said.

“We can always use more volunteers and we can always use more money. With this economy, people have to work, so they don’t have the time to volunteer. And I think that’s the reason we’re always needing donations — people need their money,” she said, adding, “We need it, too.” It’s not just the cost of food, which is always climbing. There’s also the ancillary costs of operating an organization such as Catholic Youth Association: salaries, insurance, gasoline.

“I think this is a service that really allows people to be able to stay in their homes. There’s outside contact with an individual. There’s a nutritious meal a day to keep them stable. For a lot of people, it’s a barrier between giving up their homes,” Ms. Fay said.

Ms. Matik of the county’s Area Agency on Aging said 2,400 unduplicated clients were served last year. This is how she summed up the service:

“There is a definite need for these services. It is a big support for someone to get a meal every day and a chance to see a friendly face coming to the door. People have told us that this is a very important part of their life.”

For information on receiving meals: 412-350-5460. For information on Meals on Wheels, although the sites are independent, many are registered with the national Meals on Wheels of America website.

Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180. 

Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or at 724-772-9180.

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