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Soaring gas prices curb Meals on Wheels

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Julia Vail

While soaring gas prices are hurting the wallets of Americans who drive, they are creating a life-and-death scenario for those who don’t.

Of the more than 5,000 Meals on Wheels affiliates throughout the U.S., almost six in 10 are losing volunteers because of high gas prices.

Without volunteers to deliver food, homebound elderly and disabled residents who depend on Meals on Wheels are left to fend for themselves.

“In all my years, and I’ve been here over 16 years, this is probably the lowest we’ve ever been,” says Enid Borden, president and CEO of the Meals on Wheels Association of America.

Meals on Wheels, the oldest and largest nonprofit providing meal services to needy people in the U.S., depends on volunteers to deliver over 1 million meals a day to seniors who no longer drive on their own.

Almost a third of Meals on Wheels branches have cut back on deliveries, and nearly four in 10 have had to turn away clients.

Some affiliates have not survived the economic slump. So far, branches in Minnesota, Texas and California have been forced to close their doors.

In rural California, two seniors were found dead in their homes after their local Meals on Wheels cut back their deliveries from once every week to once every two weeks.

“I hate to sound like I’m painting the worst possible picture,” Borden says, “but this is the worst possible picture.”

Since the majority of Meals on Wheels volunteers are seniors themselves, continuing to participate is not always an option.

“They are on fixed incomes, and they themselves are hurting,” Borden says. “Sometimes it comes down to whether they eat or volunteer.”

Just next door

The situation can be especially bleak in rural areas.

At Cabarrus Meals on Wheels in Concord, N.C.,15 to 20 volunteers have had to drop out to take part-time jobs, says Kimberly Strong, executive director of the local branch.

The branch, which serves 350 meals a day, has seen the number of needy residents grow by 23 percent in the last year. There are currently 20 people on its waiting list.

Though the branch has not stopped delivering every day, it has to deliver frozen meals instead of hot meals twice a week.

Cabarrus Meals on Wheels, like many affiliates nationwide, serves people living in rural areas. Forced to drive greater distances between delivery points, volunteers outside big cities are hardest hit by fuel costs.

“Sometimes these meals are going 100 miles out in the country,” says Linda Netterville, vice president of operations for the Meals on Wheels Association of America.

Rural areas also have fewer corporations, which play a big role in Meals on Wheels volunteer initiatives, she says.

Though the Cabarrus Meals on Wheels is working on a strategic plan to provide food to people living on the outskirts of the county, Strong says there is no telling when the plan can be implemented.

“We’re unable to get the food out to that point,” she says. “But we’re working on it.”

‘Part of their lives’

Meals on Wheels of Wake County, based in Raleigh, N.C., paints a different picture of the volunteer situation.

With over 2,200 volunteers, the organization has had little problem retaining its loyal volunteer base, says Viki Baker, associate director and volunteer coordinator for the Raleigh branch.

Volunteer drivers, some of whom have been helping for 15 to 20 years, rarely complain about ballooning fuel costs.

“No one has wanted to have a heart-to-heart about cutting down on volunteering because of gas prices,” she says. “It’s been something they’ve continued to do naturally as part of their daily lives.”

She attributes the success of the Wake County-based Meals on Wheels to its presence in the community, as well as its long-term relationship with area churches. About 40 percent of the volunteer base is made up of churches or businesses, she says.

“There’s not one day where there’s not a church group volunteering,” she says.

However, gas prices have taken a toll on the number of potential volunteers calling in to request information or sign up.

This creates a problem when regular volunteers need extra people to pick up slack when they get sick or go on vacation, Baker says.

For now, the Raleigh branch has not had to turn away any of its more than 1,300 homebound residents.

“There are occasionally times I may need to combine a route, but no one ever goes hungry,” Baker says.

The problem with deductions

According to federal tax law, volunteers can deduct only 14 cents for every mile driven while doing charitable work.

That compares to the 58.5 cents per mile companies can deduct for business-related travel.

If nonprofits can convince the government to narrow this gap, it might help drum up more volunteers, says Alan Winstead, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Wake County.

Right now, the affiliate is working with local United Ways, the N.C. Center for Nonprofits and congressional delegations to give volunteers a needed financial break.

“We’re trying to educate our volunteers about this policy while advocating to change it,” Winstead says.

Spreading the word

Borden of the national Meals on Wheels organization, says she feels certain that, if the volunteer issue gets national attention, “neighbors will help neighbors.”

Many Meals on Wheels branches are hoping news outlets will spread the word about the crisis American seniors are facing.

“If this story dies,” Borden says, “our people will die.”

The national organization also is trying to educate the public about the particularly devastating situation in rural America.

Meals on Wheels has organized several hearings in rural communities in Kansas, Arkansas and Iowa to present testimony to state senators, Netterville says.

The organization is getting footage of the hearings, and of volunteers delivering meals to needy seniors, for a documentary it plans to release after a hearing in Appalachia in late March.

Meals on Wheels also is trying to boost volunteer numbers by seeking volunteers who stand to gain from providing service.

“Our groups are asking themselves, ‘What’s in it for the volunteer?'” Netterville says.

Real estate agents delivering much-needed meals can familiarize themselves with roads and available property at the same time. Volunteering bankers get one-on-one contact with some of their clients.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Netterville says.

As Meals on Wheels struggles to boost its volunteer numbers, the economic downturn continues to put pressure on homebound seniors.

One in nine seniors in the U.S. is at risk of hunger, Borden says. This number is likely to increase.

“Hunger is a disease,” Borden says. “But this disease has a cure, and we are that cure.”

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