Low-cost meal delivery services have become a critical component of communities across the country, primarily through local Meals on Wheels agencies. Hundreds of thousands of adults in Canada, from seniors and their caregivers to people with disabilities, count on the nutritious and affordable meals that services provide. Many also look to volunteers for company.
In almost all provinces there are independently managed agencies that prepare and deliver meals, and they rely mainly on irregular donations and government funding. In Ontario, 74 of the province’s Meals on Wheels providers are members of the Ontario Community Support Association, which helps them with advocacy work and government relations. Without the association, individual providers “would have no voice in the provincial government,” said the association’s executive director, Deborah Simon.
As Meals on Wheels vendors accelerate for their busiest winter season to date, Nathan Sing spoke with Simon and Shannan Ketchabaw, the CEO of Meals on Wheels vendor Sudbury Meals, about the staggering demand for delivery services. of low-barrier foods and why nutritious foods should be treated as preventive health care.
As we rebound from a rocky start to this decade, has the number of people you deliver food to increase at a rate where you are struggling to keep up?
Shannon Ketchabaw: Hundred percent. I used to add 10 new clients monthly, but now I average 30 every month. When I started at this agency in June 2019, we were producing 80-130 meals a day. Now, on a low day, we are providing 180.
Deborah Simon: To translate that across the province, the number of Meals on Wheels customers in Ontario is up 60 percent from the previous year. It is one of the most requested programs now in communities throughout the province.
What’s behind the growing demand?
Simon: Many older people were deconditioned as a result of being isolated in their homes, so the number of high achievers who could have been doing more outside of their own homes has dropped dramatically. Because of this, programs like Meals on Wheels have become essential for older people who no longer have the same stamina or abilities – cognitive or physical – before being isolated for so long.
Has a Meals on Wheels supplier had to turn away new customers?
Simon: That’s already a challenge for many providers I’ve spoken to due to the rising costs of everything, the inability to raise funds, and how difficult it is to find volunteers. All of those factors contribute to increasing operating costs for Meals on Wheels, and the biggest issue you are facing right now is the ability to accept new customers and then have to create a waiting list for customers. I think some provinces get zero funds for Meals on Wheels, and the vendors have to raise funds to cover all the costs.
Ketchabaw: Lack of funds could certainly affect the amount of meals Sudbury Meals produces in a day, as skimping on the quality of meals is never an option for me. We work with a dietitian and do our best to accommodate special requests and needs. So while I would hate to have a waiting list, that might be an option if I can’t produce enough meals to meet the demand.
The majority of the people Meals on Wheels deliver to are seniors who are eligible for financial benefits. What does the growing demand for low-cost meal delivery services say about the adequacy of these benefits?
Simon: Despite the supports available, there are many older people who are just crossing the poverty line. The staggering number of people who rely on meal delivery services is really an indication of what is happening to our seniors. These programs themselves are struggling financially right now as well. We are just not seeing an increase in funding and volunteers to meet the demand.
Ketchabaw: The money should go to the hospital sector and the long-term care sector, but the community support sector keeps people out of hospitals and Meals on Wheels is a small cog in that wheel. By providing a nutritious hot or frozen meal up to seven days a week, we are preventing people from becoming malnourished and thus preventing someone from suffering a fracture because they are weak or not thinking clearly due to not getting the nutrients they need. needs to.
Nutritious food is considered a staple throughout the world. Is it time for us to treat food as preventative health care?
Ketchabaw: It’s time. Food insecure adults are suffering at home from not being well nourished. Without proper nutrition, things will happen to you. And for an average hospital stay of five to seven days at Health Sciences North Hospital in Sudbury in 2020, a CIHI report indicated it would cost more than $ 5,000. Having nutritious meals from us seven days a week for an entire year costs about $ 3,000, with no subsidies.
Simon: Also, we no longer have as many nuclear families as we used to. The care of the elderly, in some cases, has been relegated because family members are not with their elderly parents. The days of a family wrapping older people within their own homes and ensuring that older people get the nutrition they need have all but disappeared in many urban areas. Changing society has made many community support programs of utmost importance.
Have you brought enough volunteers on board for Sudbury Meals to meet the growing demand?
Ketchabew: As we have grown, it has been a struggle to find volunteers. At the beginning of the pandemic, I lost 15 volunteers in two days, which was understandable because some were in their 70s. When no one was working during the pandemic, people were leaving in droves. But many of them now have full-time commitments, so they can’t dedicate any more time, even though we are serving more people. I don’t know of a Meals on Wheels agency that doesn’t have the challenge of bringing in volunteers.
Shannon, can you explain a day volunteering with Sudbury Meals?
Ketchabew: A volunteer arrives at the agency, collects a food cooler and, once they arrive at each client’s home, organizes the meals in reusable bags. When the volunteer brings that bag to the client’s door, there’s a strong chance the client hasn’t seen someone that day yet, so they’ll do a quick wellness check. An average route is completed in an hour and a half. You cannot have people driving for two or three hours or else the food will no longer be at the proper temperature.
What are the requirements to become a Meals on Wheels volunteer driver?
Ketchabew: Anyone can go to our website, fill out the application, and then go through the interview process to become a volunteer. Volunteers must have a criminal reference check and a vulnerable sector check because they will go to people’s homes. They must have a reliable vehicle, a clean driving record, show proof of insurance for their vehicle, and let their insurance company know that they are volunteering with us. Driving and providing meals shouldn’t affect your insurance, and OCSA has helped advocate for that.
Simon: The same process applies to other agencies in Ontario. If someone in Canada wants to get involved, most major cities have a social services list that indicates where local Meals on Wheels providers are located in the area. For those who live in Ontario, the OCSA website links to a website that finds the nearest Meals on Wheels Ontario agency by zip code.
As we prepare for the aftershocks of the pandemic, many are looking for ways to help those most affected. What value is it for people to spend a few hours a week delivering meals to people in your community, compared to simply donating?
Ketchabaw: There is nothing more rewarding than the look on someone’s face while you are providing them with a warm and nutritious meal. Our clients are people who just can’t do the things they used to do, and now have no choice but to depend on others for something as basic as food. Many of these clients have volunteered for us in the past. Some customers cannot even stand in front of a kitchen stove. There’s nothing more difficult than realizing that you can no longer drive yourself or provide yourself with the basics.
If you would like to volunteer or donate, Meals on Wheels providers can be found through these sites at BC; Alberta; Saskatchewan; Manitoba; Ontario; Quebec; New brunswick; New Scotland, PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Nathan Sing writes on topics related to food security and hunger in Canada. This holiday season, report on innovative initiatives that address the roots of food insecurity, with an emphasis on how average Canadians can help.