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Meals on Wheels keeps on rolling in Washington County

August 11, 2008|By JOSH SHAW

HAGERSTOWN -- Ginger Omdahl started delivering food for Meals on Wheels in 1981, and continues to volunteer with the program, delivering meals one day a week to about 10 people.

"It is a good service and I wanted to give something back to the Hagerstown community," she said. "People who can stay in their own home seem happier and healthier and it is nice for us to check on them."

Like Omdahl, other volunteers in Washington County remain loyal to the program despite increased gas prices, but rising food prices also have created problems, according to Meals on Wheels Director Hannah Cramer.

"There is not a lack of volunteers but the average price to put together a meal is now $11," said Cramer, who runs the Meals program through the Washington County Commission on Aging. "Rising prices have made both the food and packaging for the meals more expensive than in the past."

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The price for all packaging and food costs per meal this time last year was between $8.50 and $9, Cramer said.

In December 2007, the program filled up and a waiting list has developed for the first time since the Commission on Aging took it over from The Community Action Council in 2005. Although no new clients have been added since December, the waiting list has approximately 75 names.

"The increased costs have made all of the meals more expensive and is the main cause of the waiting list," Cramer said. "We can't afford to serve as many meals as in the past."

To help with higher gas prices, volunteers who belong to the Department of Aging's Retired Seniors Volunteer Program are eligible for mileage reimbursement up to $14 a month, but many of the volunteers see paying for gas as a part of their commitment.

"It is part of our volunteer work," said Karin Engstrom, a volunteer. "A lot of the volunteers don't want to take the money because they want it to go for something more important."

Some volunteers said they run other errands after they finish their routes to save a trip out later.

"Gas prices are not a deterrent for me," said Bob Bloyer, 83, who has volunteered for 22 years. "The route I have is minimum driving and I usually combine it with other things like going to the grocery store. It is really not a whole lot of travel."

Only people who are medically homebound and older than 60 are eligible to receive meals through the program, but some volunteers suspect there are recipients who abuse the program.

Jeff Goldstein, a paid employee who delivers meals for the Commission on Aging, said he is skeptical of some who receive meals.

"Sometimes you see that something doesn't add up," he said. "Some are really in need and some are using the system. They are supposed to be homebound, but quite a few are not."

Engstrom, a two-year volunteer, agreed.

"You get to know the people on your route and you learn about their situations," she said. "You get an idea of who needs it and who abuses the system."

"Some clients have surgeries and really do need the program for a while, but then they heal and stay on the program," Cramer said. "There are a tremendous amount of things we need to take into consideration when determining what we need to do."

Although Cramer said she does not believe people abusing the system is a direct cause of the waiting list, she said some recipients need to be re-evaluated.

Cramer said she and her staff will perform comprehensive evaluations of all the clients and of everyone whose name is on the waiting list to try to weed out people who are no longer eligible as a way to help cut costs.

The program currently serves between 130 and 140 clients and Cramer said she would like to be able to add around 15 clients a month until the waiting list is eliminated.

Meals are delivered once a day, five days a week. The food is cooked by Washington County Public Schools and sent in bulk to the Commission on Aging.

Employees from the Commission on Aging receive the food and package it in their building. The packaged meals are then sorted into containers that each delivery person picks up outside the building at 11 a.m.

They are packaged and delivered by volunteers and paid Commission on Aging staff members, who also meet quarterly with a nutritionist to ensure the meals are well-balanced, Cramer said.

Engstrom delivers meals Wednesdays on the north side of Hagerstown to between eight and 11 people a day. The route takes her about an hour and each visit lasts between two and five minutes, depending on the person.

Some recipients answer the door, say "thank you" and take their meals. Others are more talkative and will discuss their health or other aspects of their lives.

Engstrom knows a little bit about each of the people on her route.

At one house she is greeted by a barking dog.

Some of the people on her route wait on their front porches if the weather is nice while others are ready to eat when the meal arrives. Engstrom delivers in the same pattern every week so the recipients generally know what time to expect their meals.

Most of the recipients on her route said they appreciate the company and food that Meals on Wheels provides.

And she said it is a common misconception that people who need the program are extremely poor, Engstrom said.

Bloyer said the difference volunteers make, whether by just opening the carton of milk or talking baseball, is worth the money spent in gas.

"There is no question the contact is an important part of it," he said. "One time a man had fallen and when I showed up I helped him in a chair and told the building manager. They got in touch with his family. That's the type of thing that no one would have known, those type of situations you run into."

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