Meals on Wheels, No signs of Slowing Down

Earlier this year, St. Vincent Meals on Wheels was being hit on two fronts with the rising gas and food prices. Today with gas prices decreasing to an average $2.53 a gallon in Los Angeles, increasing food costs in their primary concern especially in light of the recent economic downturn and impending recession. It is a considerable calamity to homebound individuals that rely on the meals program for their daily sustenance. As Sister Alice Marie Quinn, D.C., R.D. stated back in May, "It's killing us." But it's her trust in God that keeps her going: "He has always helped us. God always comes through. You just have to have faith and trust."

St. Vincent Meals on Wheels is the largest privately funded meals program in the country. When the program started in 1977, they delivered fewer than 100 meals a day. In 2007, the program served a total of 1,076,273 meals- an average of 2,949 meals pre-day.

Every morning nutritious hot and cold meals -- planned and catered to every client's needs by Sister and prepared by 98 full-time and part-time employees and volunteers -- are loaded onto one of the designated 38 fleet of vans ready to traverse the streets of Los Angeles within a 48-mile radius from their downtown L.A. location to deliver meals to homebound individuals - the majority being seniors, but the program also serves those with disabilities and chronic diseases and others unable to cook or shop for themselves. In 2007, an average of 634 miles were driven each day.

In a report released by the Federal Highway Administration on May 23, 2008, Americans drove less in March 2008 when gas prices were $4 and up a gallon compared to March 2007. It is no surprise with gas prices decreasing many are back in their cars again.

While this option to drive more or less depending on the changing gas prices is a choice for some, for St. Vincent Meals on Wheels it isn't.

In today's decreasing dollar, the cost of food is expensive. In May, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, world market prices for major food commodities such as grains and vegetable oils rose sharply to historic highs. Slow long-term growth in global crop production and rapid demand tightened the market's supply, thus resulting in price increases. According to a recent L.A. Times article, over time food manufacturers have been reducing the size of ice cream cartons, cereal boxes and other foodstuffs to offset the high cost of commodities, but the prices to the consumer hasn't changed even as the cost pressures in the commodities market have eased.

Sister noticed a considerable increase in expenses in September and October and has been diligent in finding ways to cut the cost where she can without sacrificing quality or nutrition. For example, Sister substituted a bread roll that cost 12 cents each for a slice of bread that was 6.5 cents apiece. For a program that deals in such large volumes the difference is altogether significant.

One employee noted that "[The food] isn't old people food, it's food." And it's not bad either. Every day's menu is different to provide variety and planned by Sister, who is a registered dietician. On one particular day, the menu included a healthy serving of vegetables - peas, green beans or yellow squash - bell pepper stuffed with rice and pork, seasoned chicken drumettes and for dessert, a slice of apple pie.

Other meals programs that are federally funded haven't been as fortunate. According to Daryl Twerdahl, executive director of the Annual Giving Foundation (the fundraising arm of St. Vincent Meals on Wheels), government funded programs will reduce their services. They are usually hit the hardest. It's a trickle down effect. This has put a strain on St. Vincent Meals on Wheels to take up the slack from shuttered programs and diminishing services in other areas. Their kitchen built five years ago is able to handle the uptick in the number of meals, so there has been no recent addition to staff, but volunteers are in greater demand.

Despite these challenges, they plan to continue delivering meals 365 days a year without interruption or sacrifice in quality of service. To Sister's knowledge there haven't been any complaints or reactions to changes in the menu. "The clients don't really comprehend the rising food cost when they hear it on the news. Most of them are homebound, so they don't go to the store and buy anything, and they don't realize how much things cost."

St. Vincent Meals on Wheels operates on an annual budget of $7 million, with clients contributing $1.7 million based upon what they could afford to pay. The remaining 90 percent is dependent on private charitable support. According to Sister, the clients are very poor and they are who the program raises money for.

Today, Sister is hopeful despite the recent credit crunch and economic slowdown. She has noticed a decrease in donor activity with smaller donors who used to donate $5 to $10 a month not donating, while some loyal donors realizing the tough times donate more. Rather than cutting services, Twerdahl is making a push for more grant funding, partnering with UPS to validate their routing system and trying to work with the utility company to discount rates on their electric bills. In other words, as Twerdahl put it "they are trying to stretch their donors' dollars."

Sister started the meals program in 1977. For over 30 years, she has seen the program grow as the need increased in the Los Angeles area. She is the spokesperson and figurehead of the program. She plans to continue with the program for as long as she's capable and hopes to celebrate the program's 50th anniversary if she lives to 92 and "if god will let [her]." Volunteers and employees look to her as an example and some have the same fortitude and longevity as Sister in their support of the program.

Hacinto Gutierrez, 58, is a smallframed gentleman with a large smile. He has been an employee with St. Vincent Meals on Wheels for the last 25 years. When he first started, they delivered a total of 50 to 55 meals a day total. This father of two laments the situation of the homebound seniors they service. Most are alone and prefer their independence. "It's sad," he said. In his native home of Guatemala City he says the family takes care of their elders.

Theresa Lopez has been a volunteer for the program for the last 30 years. She first met Sister when she was working in human resources at St. Vincent Medical Center. Sister was a registered dietician with the medical center. Why does she continue with meals on wheels after all these years? She related a story about her very first day as a volunteer. "It was a very hot day when I first started. I thought to myself, I work five days a week and I'm here on a Sunday when I could be home with my family. One of the client's who we delivered to that day received me with so much appreciation. I was probably the only person she would see for the entire day. She had a newspaper spread out on the table as her placemat with silverware on top. That was the moment I knew I didn't have anything to complain about."

It is that commitment that keeps many volunteers and employees with St. Vincent Meals on Wheels for so many years. In fact, many volunteers end up becoming employees themselves. Twerdahl was a volunteer for 13 years before she started working full time as an employee and Karen Torres, 24, responsible for accounts receivables and payroll, started as a volunteer at 15.

For some clients the delivered meals are the only interaction with the outside world they have and the only meal they will have in an entire day.

Los Angeles native Leona Kirk McCorvey, in her 70s, has been a client with St. Vincent Meals on Wheels for over seven years. This mother of four lost two children and she has no contact with or support from her remaining two children. McCorvey has lived in the same Los Angeles home for 43 years and says she has a lot of friends. She lives in a cluttered living space that she admits is "so ugly." Suffering from asthma, and a bad heart, she said, "I wouldn't exist without meals on wheels. The meals are so wonderful. Sister makes you feel special."

Asked if she could foresee a time when their services wouldn't be needed or if she would consider refusing service due to budgetary concerns, Sister answered, "As long as there are people who are poor and hungry, [St. Vincent Meals on Wheels] will be here for them."