Reinventing the 'Wheels'

After 50 years of service, this national program for feeding the homebound looks inside itself for new ways to satisfy its customers and control costs.

Meals on Wheels Meals on Wheels, the 53-year-old national program that delivers food to the elderly and disabled, is about to change. Aging baby boomers are insisting upon it, and the financial dilemma posed by the growing ranks of the elderly in need of food will necessitate it.

Since 1987, home-delivered meals from all sources have grown from 15% of the elderly nutrition program to about 58%, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging. There currently are more than 4,000 Meals on Wheels programs across the U.S., delivering meals Monday through Friday.  Recipients who can afford it pay a nominal fee, $4 or less, per meal.

Federal funding, which provides less than half the cost of a meal, has leveled off. The rest is contributed by state and local governments, fundraising and the meal recipients themselves.

Think tank: “We realized as we looked at the demographics and a whole bunch of other things that if we don’t change, something is going to happen—and that something is not going to be a good thing,” says Enid Borden, ceo of Meals of Wheels Association of America (MOWAA). “Some of our programs could go out of business, and if they go out of business, that means somebody is not going to get fed.”

MOWAA’s management realized it had to “rethink a couple of things,” says Borden, “reprioritize, re-engineer, redesign. We committed to looking at this whole issue.” Last year, it organized a think tank, which MOWAA called a Leaders Lab. The heads of some of the best programs in the country came together with Borden.

“We had people from academia, the government and the corporate world, and we all sat together and said, ‘Let’s think, let’s imagine,’” Borden explains. “And the biggest thing we wanted to imagine was that there was no hunger. How do we do that?”

As a result, MOWAA is drafting a blueprint for change, and a starting point is playing off of what the corporate world calls “shared services.”

“We call ours collaborative services,” says Borden. “MOWAA issued an RFP to its programs across the nation and said to them, ‘We want you to apply to us for money and take part in ‘Imagine There’s No Hunger’ forums.” This, she says, entails working within local communities to “get people together who would never really have come together in the past to talk about how we can imagine the future, and how we can imagine there is no hunger.”

Thus far, all the proposals coming in have been “terrific,” Borden notes. Some are recommending partnerships with food banks, for example, “which is something we don’t ordinarily do. And they want to get together with nutrition and anti-hunger programs in their communities, and say, ‘Let’s work together so that in tandem and collaboratively we can solve these issues and solve the problem.’ We’re very excited about it.”

FoodService Director -Reinventing Meals for Wheels Baby boomers: One of the realities MOWAA is facing is America’s changing demographic; specifically, the aging of the baby boomers. “When you and I are on the program, we are not going to want the same things that our parents want,” says Borden.

The coming wave of MOWAA participants will eat differently than their predecessors. Borden uses herself as an example. “I grew up eating brisket, but I have now become a vegetarian,” she says. “More of the people in our generation are looking at the foods they are eating.”

A look at the statistics shows that “the majority of us are going to have diabetes, will have high blood pressure, will probably be overweight,” Borden points out. “Talk to doctors, they’ll tell you what the coming demographic looks like. We are the next generation that may need these meals, and we want to make sure that if we are spending the money on the meal that you’re going to eat it.”

One suggestion for making meals more appealing to baby boomers is offering more fresh items. “We need to go to farmers markets; we need to go out and get fresh produce,” Borden says. 

Expanding the program will also mean a need for more sophisticated food holding and transport equipment, at least some of which MOWAA hopes will be donated. “You have routes that are so [big],” says Borden. “You’re delivering to so many people in such diverse areas that we have to keep that food warmer longer. The technology is out there. We just need to get those folks to sit down at the table with us.”

Not only will the changes being considered not raise costs, Borden promises, they potentially can reduce costs. “That’s the point: we wanted to lower the cost,” she says. “Right now, the sad fact in America is that at least four out of 10 of our programs have waiting lists.”

Needless repetition is another expense at which MOWAA is taking aim. In major cities like New York, for example, with a large number of MOWAA programs of every size, consolidating functions makes great sense. “What happens if you outsource your HR function, or your financial functions?” Borden asks. “Then the programs would be more apt to do the things they do best, which are nutrition-related, not administrative.”

Borden believes it important to re-emphasize that not all MOWAA meals are free. Local MOWAA programs that receive federal funds cannot charge a fee, but can ask for contribution. “And we get contributions. In fact, the United States Congress, in its infinite wisdom, said to us, ‘Just because someone is hungry doesn’t mean that they are poor, so get some more money out of it.’”

Saving lives: “We don’t have any answers yet,” Borden admits. “We’re still right in the middle of this process. We need to win the hearts and minds of the Congress,” says Borden, “and make them understand a little bit about what’s happening—and they do.”

Noting that MOWAA serves in excess of one million meals per day, Borden says, “That’s a lot of food, and a lot of business for the people who [make and market] things like food-holding equipment. We’re huge consumers.”