A Day in the Life of Meals on Wheels

Trump Threatening to Cut Program for 2.4 Million Seniors and Disabled People

Photo by Autumn Dalton, HUNS: Meals on Wheels volunteers in the Washington suburb Takoma Park prepare and pack food to be delivered to scores of area eldery and disabled resiedents.  The program nationaly is facing possible budget cuts under the Trump budget plan.

WASHINGTON — It’s 9 a.m. and the savory smells of garlic, ground beef, and cabbage waft through the air of a quaint, but adequate commercial kitchen at Zion Lutheran Evangelical Church in Takoma Park.

Jamie Griffin, 37, is using all the strength her roughly 5’ 4” frame can muster to stir a large pot of beef and cabbage–a meal that will feed those who otherwise could not feed themselves, scores of residents just seven miles from the nation’s Capitol who are part of the 2.4 million seniors who daily rely on Meals on Wheels.

Three retiree volunteers, Peggy Wade, 69, LaVerne Sommerville, 75, and Terese Bouey, 61, are assisting.  Today they are packing meals. While chatting amongst themselves. Sommerville can’t remember if she took her blood pressure medication this morning. She thinks she may have lost the pill instead of swallowing it.

Griffin is the kitchen manager.  She prepares hot meals five days a week for 40-45 senior citizens living in Takoma Park, Md., who participate in the program. She has been with Takoma Park’s Meals on Wheels for nine months.

Griffin said she tries to keep the meals as nutritious as possible. The cold meal contains a sandwich, piece of bread, fruit, salad, juice, and milk. Today’s hot meal is beef and cabbage, mashed sweet potatoes, and peas.

“I try to keep extra carbs out of hot meals since packed lunch has a sandwich and bread,” she said.

According to a Brown University study, meals delivered to homes help seniors stay out of assisted living facilities through Medicare, which cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.  The Brown University study also showed that those who had meals delivered every day had far fewer falls and hospitalizations than those who were delivered frozen meals less frequently.

Despite such evidence, White House Budget Chief Mick Mulvaney said “Meals on Wheels sounds great,” but really doesn’t provide a real service. 

So, the Trump administration is planning to cut the money that helps fund it.

Photo by Autumn Dalton, HUNS: Kitchen manager Jamie Dalton stirs the
beef, cabbage and garlic that will be part of the day's meal deliveries.

“We're not going to spend [money] on programs that cannot show that they actually deliver the promises that we’ve made to people,” Mulvaney said at a March press conference.

Jill Feasley, the director of Meals on Wheels of Takoma Park, strongly disagrees.  Feasley, 51, who has been with the organization since 2002, said she daily sees the importance of the program.

“The cost is far less, and it’s what people want–to stay in familiar surroundings,” Feasley said.

The Trump administration has threatened to severely cut the Meals on Wheels program by the elimination of Community Development Block Grants, Social Services Block Grants and, most significantly, dramatic cuts to the Older Americans Act, which is underneath the Department of Health and Human Services.

“They did call for cutting the Department of Health and Human Services, 18 percent,” Feasley said.

Meals on Wheels of Takoma Park receives a third of its funding from government entities; some from Montgomery County (the county in which the organization is located), and the rest from the federal government. Meals on Wheels of Takoma Park could lose up to $6,300 with the proposed cuts.

Feasley said if she loses part of her funding and is unable to make up for it through donations, she will need to raise the prices of the meals or get rid of her position so only unpaid volunteers coordinate the program.

Feasley and Griffin are the only paid workers.  They split the $42,000 allocated for salary.

  The program relies on volunteers to help assemble and distribute meals. Today, as Griffin and Wade pack the meals, Bouey and Sommerville seal the containers.

“I volunteer because I can get out and meet people, and help some people out,” Somerville said.

At around 11:15 a.m., the paired volunteer drivers and deliverers depart to distribute the meals.

Route four is handled by Joyce Schultz, 69, of Silver Spring, Md. A native of Chicago, she drives a blue Honda Accord with University of Illinois at Chicago Alumni and Cubs stickers. Schultz has been a driver for over 15 years and has eight stops on her route. Her husband also does a route on Fridays.

Many of the seniors are extremely private and preferred not to be interviewed, photographed or identified.

Before leaving, Schultz gently slides the cooler and container holding meals into her back seat. Since Schultz usually doesn’t interact with the recipients as a driver, she took some time to walk up to the front doors of the recipients and greet them. On the first visit, around 11:45, the door was locked.

“Sometimes, a locked door worries us,” Schultz said. “It may mean the recipient has fallen or is injured. It could also mean they had a doctor’s appointment, and forgot to remind us.”

After pulling out her husband’s cellphone and calling the number listed on the registry, the resident picked up the phone and had her grandson, who was around middle school age, open the door and retrieve the meal.

After a short drive to the next location, a woman opened the door with a huge smile on her face.  A Spanish-language television program was playing in the background.

When asked if she could answer a couple questions, she said that she couldn’t speak English, but smiled widely for a picture. Directly across the street from the previous woman’s apartment was leveled ground.

“This is where the apartment explosion was,” Schutz said. “I delivered a meal to the same lady the day before it exploded.”

The second to final stop around 12:50 led to a home that looked like it was placed in a forest. As the volunteers approached the door, a service dog, Olive, started to bark menacingly.

The recipient, 66, who asked not to be named, said she is grateful for her delivered meals.

“This means a great deal to me because I don’t have any family,” she said.  “They’ve all passed away. With this, somebody checks on me.” Schultz backed out of the driveway and made the 15-minute drive back to the church. All eight deliveries lasted roughly an hour and a half.

By 1 p.m., drivers and volunteers return to the church to return the insulated containers and coolers so they can be reused tomorrow, and the next day and the next week and the next month, unless Congress and the Trump administration say differently.