Meals on Wheels gets cooler gear

Paul Brown

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – With a $26,000 grant from a local foundation, Meals on Wheels of Asheville & Buncombe County will be able to keep the food it delivers to the elderly fresher and tastier.

The organization will use the funds both to meet its operating expenses and to purchase new and better coolers to keep foods at their proper temperature over long trips.

The grant comes from the Women Helping Others Foundation, a Dallas-based funder that encourages women’s involvement in community organizations that serve women, children and families in need.

Asheville-Buncombe Meals on Wheels serves more than 500 elderly individuals in a 660 square-mile area, making it the largest home-delivery provider of food in Western North Carolina, says Terri Bowman, the organization’s director of development.

To cover such a vast area, about 350 volunteers have to make trips lasting up to four hours to reach all the seniors along their routes, and the Coleman picnic coolers they have been using are not up to the task of keeping the food at the correct temperature, says Bowman.

Keeping foods properly chilled makes meals more appetizing, but also cuts down on the risk of bacteria that could bring food-borne illnesses to the very people Meals on Wheels is trying to help.

“We can’t afford to get anybody sick, and thankfully we never have,” Bowman says.

The old coolers will be replaced by 76 meal-delivery transporters that are approved by the National Sanitation Foundation.

These heavy-duty coolers not only are better at maintaining the internal temperature of food, they can accommodate heated or frozen gel packets that provide constant warmth or refrigeration to keep hot food hot and cold food cold while in transit.

The new devices come at the perfect time for Meals on Wheels, which has experienced significant growth in size and scope since it began delivering food to 12 Asheville seniors in 1971.

In addition to delivering meals to seniors, the group also provides services such as food for pets, “snow boxes” for times when weather prevents regular delivery, and collaboration with other groups that provide home repair, information and access to support services.

And in March 2008, the group received national recognition for its Santa for Seniors program, started by board member Carolyn Termini.

Throughout the year, volunteers collect donations of toiletries, games, quilts, housewares and other items from area businesses, groups and individuals. The items then are delivered in gift bags to all of Meals on Wheels’ clients.

The organization for gift collection was originally done by a local civic group, but is now the sole responsibility of Meals on Wheels.

For organizing this program, Bonefish Grill recognized Termini for giving back to the community, donating $2,500 to Meals on Wheels in her honor.

Over the years, donations of time, money and goods have been substantial, but Meals on Wheels still needs help to provide food and comfort to all the area’s elderly who are in need.

Currently, the most critical need is for additional volunteers. There are over 80 elderly individuals on the waiting list for meal delivery, and the only thing keeping them from being added is a lack of people with vehicles and time.

And in the face of the recession funding is becoming another top issue. As much as 20 percent of funding for Meals on Wheels’ $85,000 annual budget comes from governments, which are being forced to look for spending cuts.

“Our community really just rallies behind us and around us to help out, but we are concerned about dropping funding from state and federal governments,” says Bowman.

Government support was helpful during the gasoline shortage in summer 2008, when the organization’s vehicles were put into the emergency-vehicle registry and allowed to get fuel from the emergency reserve.

But the volunteers who used their own cars to deliver meals were not included in the registry and bore the expense themselves.

In an attempt to stay within its budget, Meals on Wheels last year made cutbacks to its Ensure program, which provides dietary supplements to clients who were too frail for regular food or were recovering from medical care.

But further financial support is necessary for Meals on Wheels to get dietary supplements to all seniors who have requested them, Bowman says.

Grants like the one from the Women Helping Others Foundation are critical to helping Meals on Wheels continue its work.

In turn, Bowman believes, the food and companionship Meals on Wheels provides will keep area seniors in good health.

“You can feed a person for an entire year for what it costs for one day in the hospital,” Bowman says. “Good nutrition keeps people out of the hospital to begin with.”

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