Meals on Wheels comes to an end

A good thing has run its course, but why?

On December 8th, 2017, Community Services of Northeast Texas, Inc. (CSNT), who has been delivering meals to home-bound citizens for more than a quarter century, will deliver its last meal.
The Board of Directors of CSNT voted on November 1st to end the esteemed program, citing over $35,000 in losses during 2017, and an outstanding debt of more than $250,000 dating back several years due to losses caused by the program.
Every person reading this remembers Meals on Wheels as a program that provided hot meals every day for those who couldn’t leave their home.  Food delivered right to the door, with a smile from a familiar face, and a kind word of acknowledgment, if not encouragement, was a daily ritual as important as any other to those on the receiving end.
Staffed primarily by volunteers for ninety percent of its time in existence, it meant something to those making the delivery as well.  Providing a daily contact, checking on someone’s wellbeing, and bringing what might be the only daily meal, was a special event that made delivery drivers feel quite warm inside.
So, what happened?
Somehow, we let our culture change.  Somehow, we let our daily grind become more important than service to others, particularly our elderly.  I’m hearing terms like YOLO (you only live once) and WIIFM (what’s in it for me) as I try to figure out what happened to our beloved Meals on Wheels.
Let me take you through a look at the program, its challenges and changes, and perhaps you can see what happened.  Be warned, it is too late to save it, but this, instead of a treatment, might serve as an autopsy, allowing us to learn things that just might prevent us repeating this process with other programs.
Let’s start with a fact that may be surprising.  In two Texas counties, particularly Williamson and Burnett, the Meals on Wheels program has over four hundred volunteers.  In Cass, Camp, Marion, Morris, Panola, and Harrison Counties, collectively, there are zero volunteers.
Let’s explore one idea that may have caused this.
The vast difference between the two areas of Texas is as simple as urban versus rural.  Williamson and Burnet Counties are more suburban than urban, but they have tons of business, schools, population, jobs, and people with time on their hands.
The aforementioned Northeast Texas counties have much less of these things, and it shows.
The rural setting that harvested little to no volunteerism over the last decade is not an indictment on the people who live there.  It’s just simple actuarial fact.  People are getting older, retiring, and volunteering less.
We could stop there, and say we have found the reason, so let’s close up shop and be done with it.
Not so fast, I say.
Using this excuse is the coward’s way out.  There are many factors at play here other than mere demographics.
Let’s look at who tried to help us.  We reached out through the media to get financial help.  Collectively, in six counties, we raised forty-five dollars during an online campaign, and every dollar was from a CSNT employee.
We petitioned all six counties in which we delivered meals through Commissioners Court.  Less than $5,000 total.  Only Camp and Morris Counties responded with funds.  They each gave us 25 cents per eligible person in their county.  Yes, twenty-five cents.
We asked for volunteers.  Nothing.
We approached rich people.  We got fifteen hundred dollars.
If you add all the donations we have asked for specifically for the Meals on Wheels program for the last ten years, and presented it as a daily dollar figure, it would be less than a penny per day.  At our peak, it took several thousand dollars per day to run this program.
The government gave us money, didn’t they?
The government gave us $4.95 per meal delivered. To deliver one meal costs about seven dollars when you have no volunteers.
So, if you do the math, losing two dollars per meal, per day, can be quite costly, especially when you are delivering more than a thousand meals per day.  Multiply that times 240 days of delivery each year, and that’s a loss of a quarter million dollars per year.
We found ways to keep our losses to under an average of forty thousand per year, but the losses just kept adding up.  I remember one year, we lost one hundred seventy-five thousand dollars.
Some may wonder about all the other money we get.  It’s public knowledge that our agency receives close to ten million dollars each year from the federal government, so what’s the problem?
The problem is, your milk money is your milk money, it’s not for candy.
Federal dollars must be spent only on certain things.  You cannot use one program’s money to pay for another program’s expenses.
Head Start gave us a $4.5 million program this year, then gave us $3.5 million to get it done.  We had to come up with the other million on our own.  Yes, we do that every year.
The feds gave us $2 million to spend on utility assistance in twelve counties, but not one dollar of that can be used for Meals on Wheels.
That’s just the nature of federal grants.  People who violate that rule usually end up wearing orange jumpsuits in federal prison.
Volunteerism then, becomes the engine that makes Meals on Wheels work.  When it leaves, it takes the program with it.
At one point, Harrison County had about two hundred volunteers.  We hired one person to coordinate that, so it would be a well-oiled machine.
All was going to plan until one day, we had to change some routes because a paid driver resigned.
When the paid driver’s routes were reassigned to the volunteer group, the first set of volunteers complained because the route was in a ‘bad neighborhood.’
When I asked if we had an unsafe neighborhood on our routes, it was explained to me by the volunteers that it “of course was unsafe, there’s nothing but minorities in that part of town.”
That was the last day I allowed that group of people to volunteer for our program. That group of people was from a local church.
As time went on, volunteers became more insistent on which routes they wanted to deliver, and the reasons for such made me furious.
Within a year, no volunteers.  There are some things I just won’t tolerate.  Racial bias is at the top of my list.
With that story behind us, we were always recruiting good-hearted volunteers, but to no avail.  Sometimes we would get well-meaning citizens wanting to help, but they were eligible for the program themselves, so that was no good.
One of the reasons getting volunteers was a little tricky was the condition of the roads on which recipients lived.
A delivery vehicle’s suspension has a useful life of about eight months traveling up and down the back roads of our counties.  Thus, repairs to our vehicles were high, and often.
One of our funders was leasing vehicles to us, and expected us to pay for all the repairs for vehicles that were no longer fit for the road.  This caused us to part ways with one funder years ago.  We were losing so much money working with them, the parting of ways was beneficial for us, but, it was not enough.
To save time, money, and vehicles, we needed a new delivery system.  It would include delivering only once per week.  One hot meal and four meals to be saved for later.  
We went to every recipient on every route and talked to them about receiving a hot meal and four meals that could stay in their cabinet or freezer until heated and eaten.
We provided some samples of each, and over ninety percent of our recipients requested the ‘shelf stable’ meal over receiving a frozen meal.
We requested a waiver from the Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS).  We got the waiver, changed our delivery model, and actually started losing a lot less money.
This continued for two years.  We were actually digging into our debt.  We had reduced our debt in that program from $470k to $270k in just a little under two years.
Somewhere in another state, an agency was delivering ‘shelf stable’ meals that did not meet the nutrition requirements as set by federal law.
DADS then decided to stop issuing waivers for that type of meal delivery.  Because we had no choice but to operate under a waiver, DADS chose not to offer us a contract in 2016.
Over four hundred recipients immediately stopped getting meals every day.  To this day, many of those people still do not receive a meal.
For the last year, CSNT has served a meal per day to an average of 114 recipients.  We still lost money.
In November, the Board of Directors voted to stop the bleeding.  We notified our two insurance companies who pay us for those 114 recipients that we could no longer deliver.
They went to work quickly to find other ways to provide nutrition for their clients.  All has worked out, and I feel confident those clients will be properly served by their home health care providers. 
Some people may still get a meal every day, but it’s not from us.  Some people choose Mom’s Meals, but we don’t recommend it.  Some people, hopefully, have family and friends who care enough to be what we cannot, to help when needed, to feed when hungry.
You may only live once, but everyone deserves to live that life with dignity and with the highest degree of independence possible.
Our heartfelt love goes out to all home-bound persons we have served over the years.  We will miss you.

Dan ‘Lucky’ Boyd, CCAP, NCRT is Executive Director of Community Services or Northeast Texas, Inc., a Nationally Certified ROMA Master Trainer, a Certified Community Action Professional, and a National Pathways Peer Reviewer. Boyd is also a general partner of Adams Boyd Consulting, LLC., First Vice President of the Texas Association of Community Action Agencies, and President of the Community Action Association of Region VI.

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