Meals on Wheels for Seniors
Written by Alex Burgess and reviewed/edited by Katie Dodd, MS, RDN, CSG, LD, FAND
Some older adults struggle with meal preparation. Meals on Wheels is an amazing organization that can help. This program keeps seniors happy and healthy through their meal delivery services. Keep reading to have all of your questions about Meals on Wheels for seniors answered.
What is Meals on Wheels?
Meals on Wheels is a nationwide program that provides nourishing meals to seniors who do not have the means to prepare food themselves. Each year, Meals on Wheels serves almost 2.4 million elderly individuals (1).
These meals are prepared fresh each morning and then delivered straight to recipients’ doorsteps using a large network of volunteers across the country.
Meals on Wheels for Seniors
Meals on Wheels primarily serves individuals aged 60 and older, particularly those who are homebound. The program plays a critical role in maintaining independence for seniors. As many as 28% of people aged 65+ live alone, many of who require assistance with daily tasks (2).
This allows seniors to stay in the comfort of their home. And it helps ensure safety and health of seniors.
More Than Just a Meal
While meals are important in preventing hunger among our beloved seniors across the US, the benefits go far beyond the plate. Here is a list of 5 ways Meals on Wheels provides more than just a meal:
1) Nutritious meals keep seniors out of the hospital.
Each meal that gets delivered is carefully planned to meet the dietary guidelines set by the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program (1).
This means that the recipients are getting all the great nutrients they need to be healthy and stay out of the hospital.
2) Daily interactions with volunteers during meal deliveries reduce loneliness.
Volunteers are required to make direct contact with their meal recipient, which gives the seniors an opportunity to interact with someone outside their home.
Social isolation can be a serious issue among the senior population. Seniors who participate in the program look forward to seeing the volunteers each week.
3) Daily visitations ensure the safety of all Meals on Wheels clients.
Not only does the interaction provide a social outlet for meal recipients, but it also ensures that someone is checking in on them. If a volunteer cannot make contact with their designated meal recipient, they follow a specific procedure to locate the client and get help if needed.
This safety check aspect of each meal delivery has been shown to effectively reduce the risk of falls in senior recipients. Meals on Wheels reports that 80% of recipients who had previously fallen did not have any additional falls after starting the program (1).
Family members can feel a sense of peace knowing that their loved one’s safety is consistently being monitored.
4) Meals on Wheels services let seniors maintain their independence.
Providing meals to seniors who cannot prepare food for themselves allows them to continue to live independently in their home rather than moving to a senior living facility.
Many Meals on Wheels programs further promote a sense of independence by offering a variety of menu options, so participants can choose which food suits their tastes the best.
5) Meals on Wheels improves the mental health of its clients.
With all of the other benefits resulting from Meals on Wheels service, it makes total sense that participants often have a happier mental state as well. A pilot study with the program showed that meal deliveries improved the mental health of seniors, with the greatest improvement seen among participants who received their meals daily (3).
Imagine being welcomed each day by the friendly smile of a volunteer bringing you a delicious hot meal. Wouldn’t that make you happier too?
How Does Meals on Wheels Work?
Meals on Wheels is a federally supported program that relies on volunteers to deliver meals to all of its recipients. Just like any other meal delivery services, participants get one or two meals delivered right to their doorstep. Meals on Wheels volunteers go one step further to see the clients face-to-face as well.
Meals on Wheels Funding
As you can imagine, preparing and delivering meals to seniors all across the country is expensive.
But thanks to the funding from federal, state, and local organizations, as well as plenty of individual donations, Meals on Wheels can still offer meals at no charge to its recipients.
Around 39% of funding comes from the federal government through the Older American Act (4). The remaining 61% is raised through other public and private groups (4).
Meal recipients are also given the opportunity to contribute any amount of payment for their meals, although this is never a requirement.
Meals on Wheels Volunteers
Volunteers are what make Meals on Wheels possible. Each volunteer is assigned a delivery route to bring meals to a handful of clients.
On a delivery day, a volunteer will first collect the freshly prepared meals at a designated pickup location in their community. Meals are stored in hot and cold bags to keep the food at a safe and enjoyable temperature.
Then, the volunteer proceeds to the homes of the seniors listed on their route list and delivers the meals straight into the hands of the recipients. Volunteers are encouraged to check in with the clients and ask how they are doing. If any issue arises, they can report back to their program’s headquarters and an employee will look into it.
Who Qualifies for Meals on Wheels?
Meals on Wheels is a wide-reaching organization. Homebound seniors make up the majority of participants. However, local programs have individualized requirements to most effectively serve their own communities. Check with your to check if your nearby Meals on Wheels program to check if you qualify.
Meals on Wheels Qualifications
The following is a list of basic qualifications to receive meals delivered through Meals on Wheels:
- 60 years or older
- Homebound and/or disabled
- Unable to prepare nutritious meals
- Lacking a spouse, partner, family member, or other companion who can prepare food
Many people may think that Meals on Wheels is only for low-income individuals, however this is not the case. As long as you can show that a senior is not capable of preparing or receiving nutritious meals on a regular basis, Meals on Wheels is willing to help.
While Meals on Wheels does have an age restriction, there may be exceptions. Some individuals with demonstrated need for meal deliveries (i.e. a homebound client without sufficient outside help) may still be able to get the help they need. Be sure to check with your local Meals on Wheels program for possible exceptions.
If you or your loved one lives in a more rural location, there may not be a Meals on Wheels program that can offer the traditional Monday-Friday meal deliveries. However, there are plenty of additional resources that each program can connect you with.
How Much Does Meals on Wheels Cost?
Meals on Wheels does not have a set cost for the meals provided. Most programs use a sliding pay scale, where each client pays what they can. Some programs may give an estimate for how much a meal costs, but recipients are never expected to pay for the meals if they do not have the means to do so.
Meals on Wheels relies on donations to run. While plenty of funding comes from private donors, the seniors who receive the meals are also asked to provide a small donation to cover the cost of their food. They may be given an envelope with their meal and asked to contribute whatever they can. Again, donations are completely voluntary.
What if I Can’t Afford It?
If you can’t afford to pay for your meals, you will still receive the meals.
Meals on Wheels wants to better the lives of as many seniors as is possible, so there are no financial barriers to receiving their services.
What’s Included on Meals on Wheels Menus?
Each program is a little different. Most offer a choice of 1-2 entrées, sides, a dessert, and a beverage for lunch. If breakfast is served as well, an entrée, sides, and a beverage are offered.
Meals on Wheels Menus
The menus at each location are designed by dietitians to ensure appropriate nutrition for seniors.
The dietitians also seek to create a selection of flavorful and culturally appropriate menu choices.
Menus often rotate on a monthly or 6-week cycle to make sure there is plenty of variety.
Due to the increased prevalence of chronic illnesses and other diseases among the geriatric population, it is expected that some Meals on Wheels candidates will have special dietary needs. Many programs are able to cater to these needs through features such as a heart-healthy menu option or a reduced-sugar dessert.
If you have special needs for your meals, contact your local organization to find out more.
Where Can I Find a Meals on Wheels Near Me?
If you or someone you know is interested in participating in the meal delivery service, there are plenty of resources to help you locate a local Meals on Wheels program.
Meals on Wheels Locations
With over 5,000 programs across the US, you will likely find one near you. Meals on Wheels America has an easy-to-use program locator on their website. All you need to do is enter your zip code or your city and state to get a list of results. This locator is great because it also provides information on other nearby organizations like food banks, aging support services, and more.
The Eldercare Locator from the U.S. Administration on Aging is another great resource for finding a Meals on Wheels program near you. Click this link or call 1-800-677-1116 to get started. This service will also provide other relevant resources for seniors in your community.
How Can I Support Meals on Wheels?
Meals on Wheels programs could not have such a significant impact on seniors’ lives without the help of their communities. As our nation’s senior population continues to grow, these programs will rely on your support even more. Whether you are willing to give financially or with your time, there are plenty of ways to help.
Donate to Meals on Wheels
Donations make up a huge portion of the funding that Meals on Wheels receives. The money goes towards paying for food, kitchen facilities and equipment, and many other components that make it possible for your beloved seniors to receive the nutrition they need.
If you want to donate to Meals on Wheels, you have many options. You can donate to the parent organization, Meals on Wheels America. You can also give to any of the 5,000+ independent programs located in communities across the US. Any amount helps and goes straight towards ensuring a better quality of life for seniors.
Volunteer with Meals on Wheels
Volunteering with Meals on Wheels can be an extremely rewarding experience. If you wish to deliver essential meals to seniors while also brightening their day, the easiest place to start is the Meals on Wheels America website. You can also contact your local program to find out how you can help.
If you aren’t able to help out with the normal meal deliveries, there are plenty of other volunteer opportunities available. These vary by location.
Here’s a list of just a few tasks you can help with:
- Preparing meals
- Visiting clients and building friendships
- Completing special projects for clients
- Working at special events (like fundraisers)
- Grocery shopping
- Assisting office staff
Meals on Wheels has an incredible impact on seniors all across the U.S. This impact wouldn’t be possible without the donations, volunteers, and other forms of support from the community. If you or someone you know is need of meal assistance, wait no longer to find a program near you and take the next step in enhancing the life of your beloved senior.
- “What We Deliver.” Meals on Wheels America. https://www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org/learn-more/what-we-deliver. Accessed June 15, 2020.
- “2018 Profile of Older Americans.” Administration for Community Living, April 2018, https://acl.gov/sites/default/files/Aging%20and%20Disability%20in%20America/2018OlderAmericansProfile.pdf.
- “More Than a Meal Pilot Research Study: Results From a Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial of Home-Delivered Meal Programs.” Meals on Wheels America, March 2, 2015, https://www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org/docs/default-source/News-Assets/mtam-full-report—march-2-2015.pdf?sfvrsn=6.
- “How Meals on Wheels is Funded.” Meals on Wheels America, Sept 2019, https://www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org/docs/default-source/fact-sheets/2019/2019-national/mowa2019factsheets_funding_final.pdf?sfvrsn=c52bb93b_2.