Meals on Wheels brings nutritious food to more than 15,000 Vermonters a year, most of them over age 60.
Nationally, data show the program saves lives and billions of dollars a year in health care spending. Yet increasing demand on top of funding shortfalls are forcing program administrators across Vermont to make tough choices.
In Rutland, volunteer driver Richard Duprey makes his first delivery of the day, in a high-rise apartment complex for seniors.
He stops in front of on a door with a quilted wreath hanging from it and knocks loudly.
“Hi, how are ya? Meals on Wheels…."
Pat Embree, a 72- year old, opens the door and chats briefly with Duprey about the weather, which on this particular day is a sultry 90 degrees.
“I have trouble standing for any length of time,” admits Embree, “So for me to cook and prepare a meal would be somewhat difficult.”
Living alone, she says meals like today’s chicken teriyaki with vegetables, brown rice and cantaloupe means she eats better.
“These meals are very important to the seniors in our community,” she says, thanking Duprey as he heads off to his next delivery.
About 4,700 Vermonters, age 60 and older, get meals delivered to their homes. More than 10,000 others get daily meals in group settings, like senior centers.
Disabled Vermonters younger than 60 also qualify for the program.
Duprey says he sees first hand how much people depend on the food he delivers.
“There’s times I put meals into refrigerators and there’s nothing else in the refrigerators,” he says shaking his head. “What they do for the rest of the day I have no idea.”
Courtney Anderson manages the Meals on Wheels program for the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging, which serves Rutland and Bennington Counties. She says 10 years ago, the majority of their clients were 85 and older. But that’s changed, she says, and demand has grown.
“The majority of folks that we’re serving are now between 60 and 74 years old with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, COPD,” she says. (COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which effects the lungs.)
Those changing demographics are a ripple effects of the nation’s obesity epidemic.
According to a survey of the program's clients, Anderson says, 84 percent reported that the meals helped them manage their conditions.
“Ninety-two percent say it enables them to remain living at home,” she continues, “and 98 percent say it makes them feel more safe and secure.”
Nonetheless, she says paying for the program has become increasingly difficult as state and local budgets have tightened.
“Just to give you an idea, in Rutland County we served an additional 10,000 meals over our contract last year,” she says. “Demand for our services continues to grow as our senior population grows.”
To avoid a waiting list, Anderson says they recently cut their breakfast program entirely and reduced the number of meals they deliver from seven days a week to five. But even more cuts may be needed.
More than a third of Vermont’s entire $6.4 million Meals on Wheels budget comes from The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through the Older Americans Act.
The Trump Administration has proposed cutting the HHS budget by 18 percent, which would mean $15.1 billion less for programs that are subject to annual spending bills.
How the president’s cuts will shake out in Congress remains unclear. But Anderson says agencies that work with the elderly are worried.
To ensure those who receive meals truly need them, Anderson says they’ve begun more thorough screening and data gathering to show the program’s efficacy.
“Fifty percent of the folks that we’re serving are our most vulnerable clients, who have no neighbor support, no family support, no transportation and very limited income,” she says. “Really without the home delivered meals program they would not be able to live independently in their homes.”
And that, she says, is saving Vermont millions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid costs.
But she says the program also saves lives. “I don’t know how many times our drivers have called and said, ‘so-and-so we found on the floor; we called the ambulance; they’re in the hospital now; they’d been there since last night; or they fell this morning and we were able to help them.’"
The volunteers are bringing food, Anderson says, but the program ends up being more than meals.
"This is just another net of safety for these folks,” she says.
Back on his route, Richard Duprey greets 76-year-old Barbara Cornelius at the door of her apartment building in Rutland.
She points to her legs, which she says are so bad she’s not comfortable driving and had to miss a doctor’s appointment this week because of it. “I can’t stand very long because of my legs, so these meals are very important,” she says, taking the covered tray and milk from Duprey.
Asked if she’s worried the program might be canceled or cut back because of funding issues she nods, “Oh, I’m not only worried about myself, but I worry about these older people who can’t themselves make some kind of a meal,” says Cornelius. “Sometimes older people can’t even open a can or whatever, and I can do that. But it’s very nice to have one good meal a day.”
She and Duprey chat for a few minutes before he heads to his next delivery, a 95-year-old retired teacher who lives by herself.