Meals on Wheels — A Critical Safety Net for our Most Vulnerable Seniors

By: Cynthia Sender


The Meals on Wheels program began in the 1970’s, mandated by the Older Americans Act.  Designed to provide at-risk home bound seniors with nutritious quality meals, 3 meals a day are delivered Monday through Friday (and includes weekend meals if the client requires and qualifies for them).  The meals are provided for a small donation, or if one is unable to pay, free of charge.

I stopped by my local Meals on Wheels operation at the OASIS Senior Center in Newport Beach to learn more about how seniors access this program.  I met with Isabelle Gawel, R.D., the Age Well Senior Services Coordinator for this site.  I was surprised to learn that the food is prepared fresh daily in a local off-site facility.  A team of volunteers delivers meals on their assigned routes, serving approximately 50 to 65 clients each day in the city of Newport Beach.  For many recipients, our area’s most frail elderly, this is the only visitor or connection to the community that they will receive.  The volunteers relay critical information to the office coordinators when a participant is declining, or in need of another type of attention or service.  A resident over the age of 65 who does not have adequate access to nutritious food may inquire with Age Well Senior Services office about enrolling in the program.  An assessment will be completed and eligibility will be determined.  In addition,  when a senior resident is released from a skilled nursing facility to their home, the office staff will contact them and alert them to the availability of meal delivery services.

I was surprised to learn that only 1/3 of the funding for meals is provided by the federally funded program.  The program relies upon donations (the suggested donation is $7.50/day) and fundraising efforts by Age Well Senior Services, a non-profit organization.  Each Meals on Wheels site in the country is managed by a similar non-profit entity.  In Orange County, California there are two organizations — Age Well Senior Services covering southern Orange County, and Senior Serv, covering northern Orange County.  I was impressed that our local coordinator, Isabelle, has a related educational background that she utilizes in her position.  A Registered Dietician is a licensed healthcare professional who provides nutritional oversight to the operation, ensuring that meals are balanced and take into account specific nutritional needs of the elderly — it is roughly modeled on the nutritional guidelines for a sedentary 85 year-old woman.

There is always a need for additional volunteer drivers to assist the program.  The commitment is relatively small, a driver will cover a route between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. a few days each week.  What a meaningful way to impact a senior’s day!

In addition to the Meals on Wheels, congregate (group) meals are served Monday through Friday at the OASIS Senior Center, where seniors can reserve a hot lunch and visit with friends.  It’s a nice way to socialize and engage with others.  This program serves about 25 meals each day.

I’ve been a volunteer for a few years at the monthly “fancy” luncheon organized by the Friends of OASIS foundation, it is usually catered by popular local restaurants or Senior Living facilities, and includes wonderful entertainment, table decorations and speakers.  The seniors get gussied up, and come with their family members, neighbors and friends.  This program also needs more volunteers to help serve the 200 plus attendees.  Contact the City of Newport Beach for more info at 949-644-3151, or your local municipality.

It is imperative that we support these local programs, as the demand for meals will continue to increase in the next several years as our aging population grows.  Get involved…you will be so glad you did!