Meals on Wheels delivery system gets into gear

February 28, 2011|By DAN DEARTH |
  • Robert Brooks puts a Meals on Wheels meal into his freezer at his home in Hagerstown. The meals are now delivered via FedEx.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

WASHINGTON COUNTY — Meals on Wheels isn’t always about the food. For some, it’s also about  companionship.

Hagerstown resident C. Juanita Burger, 88, said she enjoyed talking with the volunteers who brought the meal to her apartment as much as she did the food. But that all changed about a month ago when the Washington County Commission on Aging shifted the delivery duties to FedEx.

“I liked to talk to the people who delivered it,” she said. “Other than that, I’m alone.”

Before the transition to FedEx, volunteers delivered freshly cooked meals prepared by staff from Washington County Public Schools. Often, the volunteers sat and chatted with the senior citizens on their delivery routes.

In an effort to save money, the commission on aging contracted with an Illinois-based company called Mom’s Meals to provide vacuum-packed meals that are delivered once a week by FedEx. Ten to 21 meals come in each of the boxes, which are lined with insulation and packed with ice. Among other things, they include individually wrapped slices of bread, peanut butter packets, powdered milk and a variety of meals ranging from pancakes to roast beef and mashed potatoes.

Susan MacDonald, executive director of the Washington County Commission on Aging, said that before the transition was made, about 75 people were on a waiting list to receive Meals on Wheels, but the county didn’t have enough money to feed them.

As a result, officials closed one senior citizen nutrition site, shortened the hours of three other underutilized sites across the county and put those savings into the Meals on Wheels program.

She said the decision saved nearly $200,000 and allowed the commission on aging to enroll the seniors who wanted meals delivered to their homes.

The FedEx-delivered meals cost about $5.54 each, compared to $5.50 per meal delivered by the volunteers, MacDonald said. The latter cost, however, doesn’t include the expense of gasoline, auto insurance and vehicle maintenance.

MacDonald said the current system is not only cheaper, but it is more efficient because FedEx guarantees delivery. In the past, the meals were prepared by those working for Washington County’s public school system, and on some occasions when the schools were closed, meals could not be made.

Working out the kinks

Burger said that initially, the FedEx driver came at night and left the box of meals at her door.

“I was almost ready for bed when he left it,” she said. “He just rang the doorbell.”

The box was too heavy for Burger to lift, she said. As a result, she had to slide it across the floor to the refrigerator.

“I took things out a little bit at a time until I could lift it onto the table,” she said.

MacDonald said officials involved with the program have worked out the kinks since FedEx took over. The drivers now are given instructions to carry the package to a refrigerator if the recipient cannot.

“We have the whole thing worked out,” MacDonald said. “They’re not just being left there.”

Meal recipients have been given door stickers that tell the FedEx driver what to do.

The stickers says, “Fed Ex. Thank you for delivering my Meals on Wheels. Please knock until I answer. Please bring the box inside if I am unable.”

Robert Brooks, who lives in the Elizabeth Court housing complex in Hagerstown, said he started getting Meals on Wheels in the early 1990s, when he and his wife, Mary, lived on Jonathan Street.

He has lived alone in a small apartment since Mary died three years ago. With arthritis and a bad back, the 85-year-old Brooks said he has a hard time cooking for himself.

Brooks said the FedEx driver carries the meals inside his apartment. All he has to do is slide the box into his kitchen and put the meals in his refrigerator.

He said he enjoys the new meal system just as much as he did the old one.

“The only difference is I heat them myself,” he said. “It’s not as good as a home-cooked meal. No, no, no. It’s not that good. I’ve had some good home-cooked meals. I’m from the country.”

Brooks said he doesn’t miss the companionship of having a volunteer deliver the meals because they never stayed long enough to visit.

Living on a fixed income with medicine bills, Brooks said he appreciates the free meals and gives a $10 donation every month to help keep the program going.

Hagerstown residents Anna and Frank Bywaters, who have been married for 63 years, started getting Meals on Wheels about four years ago when Anna’s back problems worsened.

Anna Bywaters, 82, said she likes the new program because unlike the old system, they don’t have to be home when the meals arrive.

“We have a lot of doctors appointments,” she said. “We’re not always home.”

She said the meals come once a week and are easy to prepare.

“They’re different,” Anna Bywaters said. “We just thank the Lord we have some food. It’s prepared. All we have to do is put it in the microwave.”

Frank Bywaters, 85, also expressed thankfulness for the food. As a child of the Great Depression, he said, children ate what they were given.

“You learn to eat what you have and enjoy it,” he said.

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