What it’s like to volunteer for Meals on Wheels, a group that feeds seniors and would shutter under Trump’s budget

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A Meals on Wheels delivery in Lafayette, NJ.
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John Moore/Getty Images

I still have vivid memories of those Thursdays when I was 6 and I’d hop into the backseat of my grandparents’ Buick, destined for the Salvation Army in Camden, New Jersey.

We were there to pick up hot meals packed in aluminum trays, which we’d in turn stuff into big, insulated bags and hand-deliver to hungry seniors in the area.

That was just a small fraction of the people served by Meals on Wheels, a group that currently feeds 2 million people each year. But it was obviously important to those whose doorbells we rang. Many of them lived alone, and most said we were the only people they saw that day.

If the new federal budget proposed by President Trump gets approved, the budget cuts could threaten Meals on Wheels’ very existence by draining its funding. People who rely on the program for companionship and nutrition would be forced to find other options.

Here’s what Meals on Wheels – a program founded on the gift of sustenance – is all about.


Borrowing from a similar model in the UK, Meals on Wheels America started in 1974 under a basic assumption: People may prefer independence, but not everyone has the means to cook for themselves — so feed them.

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Wikimedia Commons

Source: Meals on Wheels


Today, the program has ballooned to include more than 5,000 groups supporting senior nutrition. Research has found a number of benefits from the program, including better diets, nutrient intake, socialization, and overall quality of life.

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Wikimedia Commons

Source: The Washington Post


The program itself is fairly straightforward. Local community organizations prepare hot food or package frozen meals that volunteers pick up for delivery. That food then ends up in the hands of seniors who need it.

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Wikimedia Commons

Though the food is welcome, sometimes the human contact matters even more. My grandparents and I lost track of how many times we were asked to stay to chat, while the person stacked their meal in the fridge on top of ones we’d delivered last week.

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Wikimedia Commons

For those people, socialization isn’t just a perk of the program; it’s a life-saver. Loneliness is one of the most pervasive yet least-talked about causes of death among the elderly. It’s even deadlier than obesity.

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Shutterstock

Source: PLOS Medicine


Meals on Wheels also delivers to community centers and senior homes. The idea feeds back into the mission of helping people who need food but might not have the means to buy or prepare it. The Armed Forces also participate overseas.

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Wikimedia Commons

Source: Meals on Wheels


Recently, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters that the program seemed like less of a success than the numbers and research bear out.

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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Source: Business Insider


“We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good,” he said. “We’re not going to spend money on programs that cannot show that they actually deliver the promises that we’ve made to people.”

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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Source: Business Insider


Independent research has found evidence that supports keeping it in place. The 219 million meals it delivers to 2.4 million people around the US save roughly $34 billion in costs for falls and injuries.

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John Moore/Getty Images

Source: Meals on Wheels


A number of high-ranking military personnel and politicians reacted on social media with outrage over Mulvaney’s comments, arguing he was implying seniors don’t deserve to eat.


Trump’s budget isn’t set in stone, as it still needs approval from Congress in October. That means Meals on Wheels isn’t on the way out just yet.

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But if it does disappear after more than 40 years of service to low-income American seniors, the effects are likely to be profound — both for the people who receive the meals and for the kids hopping out of their grandparents’ car to deliver them.

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Wikipedia Commons