Meals on Wheels & Senior Meal Programs


What is a senior meal program?

Delivery meal programs are generally designed to help those that are homebound, ill, and frail to periodically get a nutritious meal that is ready or near ready to eat. Congregate meal programs are also designed to assist seniors to obtain a nutritious meal, but they are not just reserved for those who have mobility or health problems.  Such programs are generally available to any senior who meets the criteria (often just a minimum age), as long as there are available resources.  Available resources will vary from community to community and organization to organization. Community programs should be contacted directly to see what the requirements are. Congregate meal programs have many benefits other than nutrition.  These include getting out, socializing, and even and many participants also volunteer their own time.  Congregate meal programs are a great way to combat loneliness and make new friends, and they are a wonderful catalyst to becoming involved. Programs vary from location to location, even within the same program.  It is best to contact a local program to see what services are offered. There are a wide variety of programs available, and this information is not in any way meant to be reflective of any given program.  Each program will operate differently and have different operational facts and criteria.  If you have questions about your local program, you should contact them directly.

What kind of programs are there?

Meal programs generally fall into one of two categories, Congregate and Delivered.  Many communities offer both. Congregate meals are defined as meals that are served to many seniors at a remote location (like at a senior center or church), and offer the chance to socialize and sometimes participate in additional activities.  These activities vary from location to location and might include games, conversation, entertainment and others.  Where offered, congregate programs are often easier to get into because they require fewer staff and resources. Delivered meals are brought to the person's home and are generally reserved for those that have a hard time leaving their home due to injury, illness, or frailty.  Delivered programs may be called Meals-on-Wheels or any other name but they all serve the same purpose.

What is Meal-On-Wheels?

Meals on Wheels is more of a descriptive term than a name, though many programs call themselves Meals-On-Wheels for the sake of understanding and recognition.  Programs using the name Meals-On-Wheels almost always deliver meals to the home, though some Meals-On-Wheels programs also have a congregate meal service arm as well.

What are the qualifications?

This varies from community to community and program to program.  Many programs are at capacity and maintain a waiting list so it is best to inquire sooner than later.  Many programs are limited in their ability to provide services, so those that require services the most will be taken first.  This is especially true of meal delivery programs. If you are only temporarily disabled such as after an accident, injury, or surgery, there may be a limited amount of time that you can be on the program.  Once recovered and able to shop and cook for yourself again, your services would probably be terminated to make room for someone else. Meal delivery programs are for those that have some kind of physical need.  They are not designed to take the place of every meal, offered only for the convenience of the client or their families, and availability depends upon the financial and volunteer resources of the local agency.  Only those with a need will be considered and this need may have to be verified. Congregate programs are not as restrictive and often the only criteria are participant age and the availability of resources. Since program requirements vary, it is best to contact your local program to determine if you meet their requirements and what limitations may apply.

Are there costs involved?

The short answer is usually YES, often MAYBE, and sometimes NO.  When money is involved, it is generally a significantly reduced amount and affordable by most people. Different programs have different rules and while there is a cost, it is often a "suggested donation".  Some programs base these on income level or some other criteria.  Hardship cases sometimes get preferential prices or no-cost meals. An average cost or suggested donation would be somewhere between $2-5 per meal but again, this varies.  To determine what costs may apply, you should contact your local program office.  In some cases, the cost of your meal may depend on your income.  Many programs supply meal on a sliding cost scale where those with higher income pay a higher percent of the cost of their meals.

How does a person start getting meals?

The first step is to contact local offices near you to find out which services are right for you, which programs are available, and which programs you may qualify for.  MealCall will not do this for you.   Search this index for the program nearest you. To make sure that program funds are used properly in meal delivery programs, you may get a call or visit from a social worker asking for relevant information.  You may also be required to get a letter from your doctor or a social worker, or be required to apply in writing.  Again, this depends on the requirements of your local program and these statements may or may not apply. Participation in congregate programs is different and varies.   Some take walk-ins, others require that you sign up in advance.  If they are at maximum capacity, you may have to wait.  They may be limited by staff, financial resources, or available seating. To find out what the specific qualifications are for any program, you should contact the program directory via phone or email.  Again, start this process early as there are often waiting lists that can last for weeks or months.

What is included with a meal?

This varies from day to day and program to program.  An example of a cold meal might be a sandwich, a piece of fruit (or juice) and one or two side dishes. An example of a hot meal might be a serving of meat, a vegetable, and a roll or biscuit.  A piece of dessert could also be included. These are just examples.  Other items may be added as well but again, this varies.  Serving sizes vary but are adequate for the meal served. Some locations may also provide Kosher or other ethnic meals.  Most programs also work with a dietician for proper nutrition and to provide suitable needs for a variety of people.  Your local Meals program may provide you with many options or just a few. If you have questions about what is provided, you should contact your local meal program administrator or volunteer. Look for an adequate meal but not huge quantities.  Light eaters might possibly have enough leftovers for a snack or a second meal, but this should not necessarily be expected. Neither should you expect meals that are expensive, take tons of time to prepare, or must be served and consumed within minutes of preparation.  Where meals are delivered, it can take awhile between the time the meals are picked up from the prep location and when they are delivered.  This means that certain foods are not good candidates for being included in a meal. Meal planners must balance many things including nutrition, cost, and portability. Some locations may deliver frozen meals that must be heated. Congregate meal options have more flexibility and could be defined as cafeteria style food and service.

How often are meals delivered?

This varies and is generally dependent upon funds availability and the number of volunteers.  In almost all cases, there is at least one meal provided per week.  Many programs provide one meal per day and a few provide up to two meals.  Some programs deliver during the week, but not on weekends while others have more extensive delivery.

Who delivers the meals?

Meal delivery is generally provided by volunteers.  Volunteers can range from late teens to older seniors.  They sometimes use their own vehicles and sometimes use provided vehicles.

Can I order special dinners?

This may be possible where there are special dietary restrictions and you may have several options.  Delivered meals services do a great job but cannot offer you a restaurant menu.  Even when there are choices, these choices are often quite limited.  Most programs either have special orders or generally prepare their meals to be in line with common dietary restrictions such as lower sodium or diabetic meals. Meal programs are meant to be a baseline nutrition program and they work on high volume and low funds.  To avoid throwing away food and wasting money, they must know in advance what they are going to prepare and deliver each day. Again, this can vary from program to program.  If you have special dietary restrictions or just can't eat certain foods, ask!  Delivery meal services are meant to help you.  But if you don't tell them how you need help, it is hard to know what you need.

Do volunteers perform other ‘help’ tasks?

While this does happen from time to time, this is not the purpose of the volunteer.  If you have a physical emergency, you can certainly ask for assistance.  If you don't feel well, let the volunteer know. As for assistance with other tasks, it isn't that volunteers don't want to help you out.  Most programs however, do not allow their volunteers to do much because of liability reasons, the health and safety of the volunteer, and because they probably have many other meals to deliver. Volunteers often sit and visit for awhile, but please respect what they do and why they do it.  Some program volunteers have many deliveries.  If they don't have time to visit, please don't take it personally.  They have many other people to get to and of course, a life of their own.  Remember, they are volunteers, not paid staff.  Please do not ask volunteers to lift heavy objects, do household chores, or take you places.

Are there nutritional guidelines?

Absolutely!  Most programs work with, have consulted with, or subscribe to the direction of a professional nutrition expert.  Food quality and sanitation are essential and regulated. Nutritional experts are generally involved at some level and they take into account the diets, eating ability, and tastes of a large number of participants when choosing menus.  Considerations include taste, nutritional value, caloric value, salt content, fat content, ability to chew and digest the food, gastric-bowel reactions, and more.

Are meal programs governmentally funded?

Many but not all programs do receive some funding from a variety of government sources, but this can vary depending upon budgets.  However, these do not completely fund all programs.  In most cases, demand for services outweighs the supply of resources and funding and local organizations must seek additional sources of income. Additional income sources would include business and personal donations, partial funding through suggested contributions from recipients or recipient's family, other charitable conglomerate organizations such as United Way, and many local meal programs conduct fundraising projects or drives. A lack of funding and volunteers as well as a growing senior population in the U.S. often leads to waiting lists for meal programs, especially those that deliver food.  When budgets are cut, services must either seek additional sources of revenue or cut back on services.  Most programs depend on volunteers, outside monetary and/or food donations, and a small fee charged to the person receiving the meal.

I don’t see any listings for my community. Are there more?

Absolutely!  We are adding more every day and more meal programs are constantly opening.  MealCall will never have a perfect or complete list, as things change daily.  However, at this moment what we have is online.  MealCall will continue to find more meal programs across the country so come back often to see what's new.  If we do not show a program, ask!  In most cases, we can find at least one program within a few miles of your location.  Contact us for further information.

Do you accept private donations?

No, MealCall does not accept private donations.  We prefer to see you donate at the local level.  At some time in the future, we may accept donations to help programs in trouble.  Running our own program however, is done with volunteers and a small amount of ad revenue.

How does one get a listing on MealCall?

If you are a program administrator or otherwise involved with a meal program, you may submit your information.  There are no costs involved.  If you have a current program that is listed but the information is wrong, please use the same form.

Are there costs associated with MealCall?

None whatsoever!  MealCall is free to search and we don't take money from local meal programs.  MealCall is sponsor supported.  We invite you tell associates and friends about MealCall, and look forward to helping in any way that we can.

What kinds of services does MealCall provide?

MealCall provides consumer and industry services.  By publishing and constantly updating our list of providers, we help those in need to connect with the programs that they require.  In doing so, we also help local programs with their PR costs. MealCall also helps by providing industry services to local organizations, helping them connect with each other to exchange ideas and information.  MealCall will be adding more services as time goes on.

What other kinds of services will MealCall provide?

We'd like to hear from you.  Let us know what kinds of online services and information that you would like to see.  Contact us!