The very mission of the Meals On Wheels program is to feed the elderly and disabled with healthy, nutritious meals.
That can be a costly and overwhelming task.
The Lutheran Service Society, the largest provider of Meals on Wheels services in Pennsylvania, last year began seeking to serve more locally-sourced food and increase the quality and amount of food delivered to its clients. At the same time, it aimed to keep costs manageable and grow to serve more communities.
In taking on that mission, the society created a successful model that it now hopes to share with other Meals on Wheels programs across the country.
“When we asked ourselves, could we get more meals out the door—more nutritious food, more local foods, more fresh foods—while keeping our costs down, we didn’t know if it would work,” said Patty Davidson, chief development officer at Lutheran Service Society.
After working on this project for several months, the answer turned out to be yes, she said.
The project was funded through a $50,000 grant through the Walmart Foundation and the Meals On Wheels Association of America Building the Future Vision Grant Program. The program is a joint venture between the Walmart Foundation and the national Meals on Wheels association.
Lutheran Service Society is located in Ross Township, but its Meals On Wheels Program has more than 35 kitchen locations, including one in Coraopolis. It serves approximately 2,000 elderly and disabled adults a day in the Greater Pittsburgh area and two sites in West Virginia.
“Most people don’t know that there are literally thousands of pounds of food that is wasted because the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank simply can’t process it and get it out before it spoils,” explained Davidson.
The Food Bank partnered with the Lutheran Service Society by passing on the donations to the society. The society, in turn, began to use the food for the meals not only served through numerous Meals on Wheels sites but also in its Springboard Cafe program.
The Springboard program is a job training/food service subsidiary of the society that trains people who are typically difficult to employ to work in the food industry. All of the donations and food orders now are processed at Springboard, according to Davidson.
The cafe staff and volunteers take the donated food and quickly turn it around into nutritious meals for the Meals On Wheels clients. They also serve meals at the cafe program site on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh and a few local homeless shelters.
The society now makes most of the meals at the central location, then delivers them to the sites so that the food donations can be used in a timely manner. Greater quantities of food also can be purchased and used more effectively at one site. While all cold-food meals are prepared at Springboard, five other locations also prepare hot food in addition to Springboard.
“We have found we waste far less food this way,” Davidson said.
The new model has also increased the nutrition in its meal deliveries to two-thirds of the Recommended Daily Allowance of nutritional content for seniors.
“There is research that shows that seniors who have the two-thirds RDA are less likely to end up in the hospital, and if they do, their hospital stays are shorter,” said Davidson.
The new program has also produced great savings—a decrease of $1.30 per meal in raw food and food production expenses.
“When you consider we are putting out over 780,000 meals per year for Meals On Wheels, that translates to more than $1 million dollars that we can expect to save in the coming year,” said Davidson.
That amount doesn't reflect all expenses or some rising costs, Davidson said.
“We are very optimistic, though, that the benefits of the new model—the terrific opportunity for partnership, the food rescue, the increase in quality and quantity of food being delivered, and the opportunity to reach more underserved communities, in addition to the cost savings—will far outweigh any new expense that results from the model,” she said.
John Dickey, the society's chief operations officer, said volunteers also are a huge factor in the savings.
“We need more volunteers and with more, we could be serving even more meals everyday to those in need,” he said.
The Lutheran Society hopes other programs will follow its model as it disperses information about it through the national Meals on Wheels association.