Celebrating 50 years of nutrition and social engagement for local seniors
BY ANITA B. STONE | PHOTOS COURTESY OF MEALS ON WHEELS OF WAKE COUNTY
The notable writer John Walters once said, “The only thing I like better than talking about food is eating.”
That quote neatly expresses the mission of Meals on Wheels of Wake County to serve and feed homebound, elderly and disabled persons, with the goal of reducing hunger and malnutrition, and promoting the health and well-being of seniors across the county. It may be a surprise to learn that many older adults, including those with limited mobility, declining health or financial issues, experience hunger—especially since this situation has often remained behind closed doors. But the truth is, many Wake County residents live below the poverty line. “After paying rent, utility and medical bills, very little is left for food,” says 90-year old Barbara Camden of Raleigh.
With the help of federal, state and private funds, Wake County founded Meals on Wheels in 1974 to begin taking care of its elderly population’s nutritional needs. When the Nutrition Services Incentive Program was included in the federal government’s Older Americans Act, North Carolina State University’s Center for Urban Affairs and Community Services called for local church, civic and other professional groups to investigate the need for meal services in Wake County. After discovering a sizable nutrition problem among the county’s elderly—and despite little funds—an ambitious group of socially conscious Wake County residents began making efforts to set up a program to feed the elderly, and started looking for food preparation sites for implementing a program to home-deliver meals.
Eventually Memorial Hospital of Wake County—which is now the WakeMed Raleigh Campus—agreed to supply 259 meals each week, and Hillyer Memorial Christian Church offered valuable office space to serve as a pickup point for volunteers.
The Wake County chapter of the American Red Cross then offered to transport the meals to Hillyer for volunteers to pick up. As the idea of helping to feed Wake County seniors expanded, more county residents offered their services. Within one year, volunteers had made up five teams of drivers who delivered food daily to those in need. In October 1973 the name ‘Meals on Wheels of Wake County’ was born, and the first official board meeting took place in December. Funds were not always easy to come by, but dedicated personnel kept Meals on Wheels alive and growing.
Growth and Expansion
In 1989, the Older Americans Act Title III-C Nutrition Program began to offer the largest portion of funding for Meals on Wheels, and by 1999 the program experienced an urgent need to expand.
A collaboration with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and local food runners created shared kitchen and office space. Meals on Wheels continued its expansion by beginning a frozen meal program in 2001 for people needing the service who were living in outlying areas of Wake County where there were no pickup sites or volunteers. In 2004 the Vernon Malone Center, at 1001 Blair Drive in Raleigh, was dedicated as a hub, and Meals on Wheels of Wake County settled into that location.
Meals on Wheels of Wake County celebrated its 40th anniversary and served its 8 millionth meal in 2014. The organization was inducted into the Raleigh Hall of Fame that year in recognition of its service to the elderly community.
The Pandemic’s Effect
By 2020 the combined effect of inflation, which reduced the buying power of funding monies, and the COVID-19 pandemic closings presented new challenges to senior nutrition programs. Every senior center in Wake County shut down during the pandemic, including Meals on Wheels’ Friendship Cafes. Deliveries became scarce, and residents in more isolated places could not be reached. At the same time, nutrition programs faced an unprecedented surge in demand as the number of older adults sheltering in place increased. Once again, determined residents met the challenge by offering an alternative program. Wake County Meals on Wheels transitioned from daily hot meals to a once-a-week delivery of seven frozen meals for the senior community. Volunteers began distributing the meals with personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. They helped find isolated senior adults in the area. COVID-19 did not slow down the group of volunteers willing to serve the community—even with the 10% increase in meals needed during the height of the pandemic.
By November 2020 Meals on Wheels was able to assume its original delivery program, and every signed-up client received a hot meal for the first time since the pandemic had started. Friendship Cafes reopened, and Meals on Wheels opened new sites and installed kiosks to enable seniors to digitally check in and reserve meals. Seniors once again began eating with their peers, addressing isolation and hunger at the same time.
Currently, more than 1,800 homebound adults are being served hot meals—including those with disabilities of any age—by a total of 2,000 volunteers. During the fiscal year, approximately 370,000 meals were provided throughout Wake County. Additionally, services for dialysis patients and those persons living in isolated regions are receiving meals Monday through Friday each week.
Preparing for Future Growth
Wake County is expanding rapidly, and once again Meals on Wheels finds itself facing new challenges as soaring inflation hits them hard. Even though contributions continue to flow into the organization from public and private sectors, Meals on Wheels is in a short-funded situation due to the rapid increase of seniors needing nutritional aid.
The organization is already preparing for the expectation that the 85-plus population is expected to double within the next 20 years, with estimates that one in three Americans will be 60 or older by 2060. More and more seniors are calling Wake County home, and Meals on Wheels is continually looking for inventive ways to serve the changing community. “There are a lot of moving parts,” says Mary Kate Keith, a 15-year director of development and communications for Meals on Wheels. “We will make it all work.”
Wake County Meals on Wheels celebrates its 50th year in 2024, on the heels of the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program’s 50th anniversary two years ago in 2022. Meals on Wheels is the only home meal delivery program serving seniors in the county, and Keith says, “We will continue to do so for another 50 years.”
A constantly expanding organization, Meals on Wheels is currently teaming up with Home Instead—a home care program that helps aging adults stay engaged in everyday life—to provide much more than just a meal. Meals on Wheels also recently opened its tenth Friendship Cafe at White Oak Missionary Baptist Church in Apex, and is planning another cafe opening in 2024. The positive effects of food and companionship provided by Wake County Meals on Wheels immeasurably enhances life for many seniors who benefit from the healthy nutrition and social interaction the organization makes possible.