Powered by a trusted volunteer workforce, the Meals on Wheels network delivers more than 251 million meals each year to 2.2 million older Americans. Last year, on Martha’s Vineyard, 60 volunteer drivers (with 40 backup drivers) delivered 42,079 meals.
“All these people driving food around make it possible for so many of us to be at home. Some people can’t get out. If they didn’t have Meals on Wheels, it would be a hell of a problem. They would not be able to stay in their home,” Martha’s Vineyard resident Rafe Teller says. “When I first moved here from Boston, I didn’t give a thought about the problems that might arise from aging here. What might happen down the road.”
“Senior hunger is a hidden epidemic,” Meals on Wheels America president and CEO Ellie Hollander says. In a 2021 Feeding America Study that was released in 2023, they found that 5.5 million seniors age 60 and up experienced food insecurity in 2021— that’s just over 7 percent of the older adult population.
“We have a senior hunger cliff looming. The senior population is set to hit 93 million in the next decade. And seniors with fixed incomes will be hit the hardest,” Hollander continues. “Meals on Wheels is not just about nutrition. When someone stops by with a meal, it is also a wellness check. Are they isolated and feeling alone? Are they physically feeling well and safe? We all want to be able to age with our health, dignity, and independence. We want to have the option to stay in our homes and communities. If we don’t support the existing nationwide Meals on Wheels infrastructure for this very reason, we are not going to have these choices. Healthcare settings are far more expensive, and we cannot have as rich a life as we hope to have.”
Meals on Wheels works. “We can provide Meals on Wheels for one person for an entire year for roughly the same cost of one day in a hospital, or 10 days in a nursing home. So why not invest in Meals on Wheels feeding people, which improves health, saves lives, and saves money? The economic savings alone makes the case for us,” Hollander says.
Despite this, raising the funds to support Meals on Wheels programs is challenging. Hollander points out one major factor: “The fact is less than 1 percent of all philanthropy in the U.S. supports senior causes. Yet all of us will age. We each have the ability to contribute — to donate, volunteer, or advocate for our aging population, which will one day be us.”
So where does the money come from to support Meals on Wheels? “A lot of people don’t understand how Meals on Wheels programs are funded,” Hollander says. The public-private partnership designed to deliver 251 million meals a year is incredibly complex, but the short explanation is that each local program operates as a separate entity, receiving a unique mix of funding — with nearly 40 percent in the aggregate coming from federal funding. Meals on Wheels America serves as the national leader and voice for more than 5,000 local programs, and master architect for driving federal advocacy, while each local Meals on Wheels organization responds and serves the specific nutritional and socialization needs of its community’s most vulnerable seniors. For instance, there are some cities and locations where there is such a need that they have entire commercial kitchens dedicated to making more than 6,000 meals a day, just for Meals on Wheels recipients.
“On Nantucket, which is a pretty small program, a restaurant is contracted to make the meals. On Martha’s Vineyard, which has about five times the demand of Nantucket, the M.V. Hospital makes the meals,” says Louis Eppers, nutrition program director of Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands. Hollander sums up the structural and funding formula: “A typical Meals on Wheels is not typical.”
This said, about 63 percent of Meals on Wheels programs rely on federal funds for at least half their funding. Some states will kick in more. The remaining deficit must be filled in with grants and private donations. Laura Roskos, the communications and development manager for Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands, says that on the Cape and Islands, about 40 percent of the local funding for Meals on Wheels comes from the federal government and state; 45 percent comes from Medicare, when Meals and Wheels has been prescribed as part of a patient’s care plan. “And for people who are not receiving it as part of a prescription, we ask that they make a voluntary contribution of $4 per meal. We generally receive about 1.04 cents per meal. On Martha’s Vineyard, we are lucky, as Dukes County is a great team player and invests a nice chunk of money into the Vineyard program. This said, we are still predicting a shortfall across the program of about $300,000. I write lots of foundation and corporate and municipal grants,” Eppers says. “We do run a giving program at Thanksgiving we call ‘365,’ in an effort to operate at less of a deficit. We are not going to tell hungry people they have to wait three months to eat. And it is important to note that not every state contributes to their Meals on Wheels programs. We are lucky here.”
Megan Panek, the director of the Martha’s Vineyard office of Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands, agrees: “The Vineyard is special. A lot of people think, we are an Island, so it must be a small program with a static population, when in fact we are a large program — six towns with nine routes. We even have meals getting over to Chappy. And our over-60 population continues to grow. We serve any homebound elder 60 years and older. We don’t have a waitlist. And we get rave reviews of the meals we deliver. In other parts of the state, they will serve frozen meals. People come here and try our food, and they are taken aback by how awesome our food is. The hospital does an amazing job.”
“The thing we have to remember is that without food, there is no life. Food is medicine. And in many cases, our food is being prescribed by doctors. For some, our meals deliver the needed daily critical calories and nutrition,” Eppers says. Eppers chose this line of work because of his personal experience with hunger: “I know what it is like to go to bed hungry. Having been there, I don’t want to see anybody else experience that. I wouldn’t change my childhood. It was a difficult time, but I was loved, and I do what I can do now so others don’t have to experience hunger. I am working like the dickens to get my mother to take advantage of the senior dining options in our area, but she says she is not old enough. We need to rebrand this so it is more appealing to more people. And we are trying to do this with the menus as well. Less meat and potatoes. Include soups and sandwiches. Vegetarian options. More to draw people in.”
But even better than the food are the nourishing relationships that develop between the volunteers and Meals on Wheels subscribers. About 10 years ago, Chilmark resident Jessica Roddy, who was then working as a full-time attorney, saw “somewhere” that Meals on Wheels needed drivers. She volunteered: “I ended up loving it. It’s an incredible program, helping elders stay in their homes. I do the up-Island route — West Tisbury all the way to Aquinnah — on Mondays. I bring my two dogs. The dogs are a big draw. There are people from old Island families in old Island houses. There are somewhat defiant artists. And there are people who just want to stay in their homes so they can live near and see their friends. They get a nourishing meal in the middle of the day, and I check in and make sure they are OK.”
Rafe Teller, one of those on Jessica’s route, says, “Jessica’s a gem. She delivers on Mondays. Always brings her dogs. A hoot. And she is musical, engaged in town politics. If you claim to be too much of a specialist here on the Island, it’s a problem. Anyway, like all the people who deliver the food, she’s a hero, spending much of her Monday getting the food from the hospital and then driving around for hours delivering it. It’s a hell of a lot to ask. We talk sometimes, but other days she is way behind. But I understand. I mean, it can’t be old home week all the time. Especially when there is bad weather.”
Beth Kramer, who is a substitute driver for Meals on Wheels here, says, “I love it. I get to see my neighbors. I always bake the night before my route. Then I am sharing something of myself. I did it on Halloween, dressed in a unicorn outfit. So they had a trick-or-treater, even though I was bringing the treats.”
“Beth Kramer’s baked goods are excellent,” Teller says. “It’s very professional. She has a commercial kitchen. The right tools.”
“I continue to deliver meals because these elders bring all this wisdom, joy, and perspective to our community,” Jessica Roddy says. “Thank God they are here.”
To donate to Meals on Wheels, visit escci.org/donate, or send a check to Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands, 68 Route 134, South Dennis, MA 02660. (EIN: 042523904.)
To volunteer, call Megan Panek at 508-693-4393. Or contribute to Meals on Wheels’ #SaveLunch campaign at savelunch.org.