Over four decades of serving Meals on Wheels:  Why we must adapt

For over 40 years, Age Well has delivered Meals on Wheels to aging Vermonters and those with disabilities, providing access to healthy and nutritious food, safety checks and friendly visits to those who need it most. The landscape and delivery model for many Meals on Wheels programs are now evolving. Programs across the country and in Vermont are updating and developing sustainable approaches to service delivery.

Increasingly, for those living with a critical or chronic illness, food is a vital component of their treatment program and can lead to improved health outcomes at lower health care costs. Today, most vendors with whom Age Well contracts to produce meals do not have the capacity to provide therapeutic, vegetarian, or culturally appropriate meals for our increasingly diverse population.

Under the current model, Age Well oversees fourteen different food vendors across Northwestern Vermont. With this many unique vendors, it is difficult to provide consistent quality control and food variety for the nearly 1,500 people we serve. In order to better serve aging Vermonters, Age Well has selected a single vendor, Trio Community Meals. This transition emerged from a three-year process that involved a consultant, focus groups, social service providers, food program coordinators, and other community members. The goals for all stakeholders in this process were the same: expand food options and improve quality for home-delivered meals, ensure food safety, provide consistent training and background checks for volunteers, and meet the dietary, religious and cultural needs of those served.

With 25 years of experience providing quality meals for programs throughout the Northeast, Trio Community Meals (formerly called, Lindley Food Services) has been a vendor for Age Well’s Addison County meal programs for over two decades.  Trio Community Meals will begin preparing chilled meals for Age Well’s entire four county region (Addison, Chittenden, Grand Isle and Franklin County), beginning in early July. Meals will continue to be delivered by the nearly 400 dedicated volunteers who provide a meal, safety check and friendly visit to seniors who struggle with hunger and may be isolated and living alone.

“Chilled meals will be prepared by Trio Community Meals and delivered in place of the old-style heated meals,” stated Age Well Nutrition Director, Chris Moldovan. “This change will provide a number of benefits for our clients; the flexibility to reheat or freeze their meals and eat them at a time that best suits them. Another reason for changing from heated meals to a chilled meals model was our need to enhance food safety, nutritional benefits, and level the playing field in terms of food quality,” explained Moldovan.

Trio Community Meals will assist with menu planning, customized delivery schedules, and create special menus overseen by a Registered Dietitian. With the chilled meals also comes brand new packaging, which will be clearly labelled and specifically designed to reheat easily and safely. The use of chilled meals is now considered best practice for Meals on Wheels programs across the country. By moving to this model and partnering with one vendor, Age Well is taking the necessary steps to ensure consistent quality of our meals, meet a broader range of nutritional needs, and continue to combat the three of the biggest threats of aging: hunger, isolation and loss of independence.

Age Well is made up of dedicated staff and volunteers, who truly care about older Vermonters.  We are working hard to feed people, coordinate care, and connect individuals to benefits, to ensure that our aging population and people with disabilities can continue to live well, in the setting of their choice. A rapidly changing environment demands that we modernize the Meals on Wheels delivery model to continue to meet the needs of those we serve. We ask that our community and elected officials join us in making the needs of our most vulnerable and isolated seniors a high priority.

Why we must innovate and adapt to the increasing and changing needs:

The need is severe and continues to grow. Today more than 17,000 Vermonters face the threat of hunger and nearly 40,000 are living alone and have difficulty paying for basic living needs. With the senior population set to double by 2050, hunger will only continue if left unaddressed. While we have kept up with the growth, many programs face waitlists that grow longer every day, we must avoid this reality. 

Funding is at best tenuous; level funding or cuts, increasing transportation and food costs, unprecedented demand for services, and smaller private donations in a slow economy. This funding reality, coupled with an increasing need, means that Older Americans Act Nutrition Programs (including Age Well’s) are serving fewer meals today than they were in 2005.

Meals on Wheels programs provide a unique service. They are the only federally supported programs designed specifically to meet the needs of seniors. Those who rely on Meals on Wheels are significantly more likely to report poorer health, screen positive for depression and report recent falls and emergency department utilization. Food is medicine and we must provide both quality and therapeutic meals as a preventative measure. The combination of proper nutrition, a safety check and a friendly visit offers wrap-around support that enables seniors to remain healthier, independent and at home, where they want to be.

Investing in Meals on Wheels actually saves taxpayer dollars. We can provide a senior with Meals on Wheels for an entire year for about the same cost as one day in the hospital. We must recognize the urgent nutritional needs facing Vermont’s seniors and address them. A high quality nutrition program does more than provide meals; it adds companionship and safety for seniors who might otherwise spend days in isolation. If the need for hospitalization or living in a nursing home setting decreases, a reduction in total cost of care helps all Vermonters. There’s no doubt that increasing investment for Meals on Wheels is a win-win for our families, our communities and our state as a whole.

To learn more about Age Well’s Meals on Wheels, click here: agewellvt.org/services/food-meal-delivery/meals-on-wheels/

To learn more about Trio Community Meals, click here:  triocommunitymeals.com