It’s been said before, but Pasadena Meals on Wheels really is much more than a meal.
Yes, the nonprofit organization has brought affordable, healthy meals to local residents for 54 years, but it has also become a vital cog in helping those confined to their homes to stay there and out of institutionalized care for as long as they like. Whether its clients are homebound because of illness, accident, disability, convalescence or age, the meal service helps those who are unable to shop and cook for themselves to remain among the comforts and memories of their own homes.
The 100 faithful volunteers of Meals on Wheels who make this happen — some of whom have pledged their time to pack and deliver meals for more than 15 years — offer clients not only hot meals, but daily smiles and conversation. For many of the homebound, a volunteer is the only person they might see each day.
“We give a little bit of peace of mind to the families that someone else will be by to check in on them, give them a smile and a bit of conversation,” said Meals on Wheels Board of Trustees President Patti Feldmeth. “We really are more than just a meal — we’re that human contact that people crave and don’t always have when they’re living on their own. It’s a very personal connection.”
Although such organizations are found nationwide, Pasadena Meals on Wheels was one of the first nonprofits of its kind west of the Mississippi, and its founders helped other communities in Southern California establish similar programs. Since 1964, it has grown from just a handful of volunteers to an organized contingent of rotating drivers and deliverers. In 2018, the local nonprofit has packed and delivered more than 36,000 meals to the homebound of Pasadena.
Sylvia and Richard Duerr have been clients since the summer, but it feels as if it’s been much longer, said Sylvia. She and her husband enjoy chatting with the volunteers, and Sylvia, who loves a good joke, always makes sure she has a good one ready. “I was told a long time ago that if you laugh, you live longer, and jokes are good for the memory, too,” she said, and obliged with one willingly. Sylvia, now 90, and Richard, 88 (“I robbed the cradle,” she teases), no longer drive, and getting groceries has become difficult. Their only daughter lives in New Mexico, and though the Duerrs have caring neighbors, she likes not having to stress about cooking.
“I don’t have to worry about what is in the refrigerator or what is not there; I just don’t have to worry about cooking every day,” said Sylvia, who instead focuses on trying to keep up with the maintenance of their home. Though ready-made meals are easy enough to buy at the grocery store, she doesn’t like the long list of preservatives and artificial ingredients that accompanies them. She has always read the labels on food and been health conscious. “I’ve always known what is good food, and we really prefer the meals from [Meals on Wheels] over the store bought,” she said. “They are very tasty and good for you.”
While food delivery programs have increased in variety, with even grocery stores now offering delivery, a hot meal that is ready to eat and smells good can give incentive to those who might have little appetite. For others on a fixed income, the meal plans continue to be more affordable than store-bought food.
Meals on Wheels, which offers two complete meals — one hot and one cold — plus milk and juice, has kept the price at $7 per day. Though the nonprofit works to assist those who cannot afford that price — raising funds to make up the difference — the number of lower-income seniors who face food insecurity is increasing, Feldmeth said.
“We are experiencing a significant increase in the number who need additional subsidy or indicate they can’t afford to pay anything,” she said, citing figures that show the centenarian population has increased 44% since 2000, and the number of seniors will grow exponentially in the coming years. “We expect these numbers to continue to rise as life spans increase.”
Donations and grants have helped the nonprofit subsidize so that no senior goes hungry. Though there are some government programs and senior health plans, many have had either their benefits cut or eliminated altogether. And while congregate feeding programs, like at the Pasadena Senior Center, offer meals, the homebound can’t get to them.
Currently, Meals on Wheels has 85 clients, with some 20 clients older than 90 and a few over 100. The average age of the clientele is 86, many of whom live alone. Others are older couples, with one partner trying to care for the other.
Volunteer Joan McManamon understands the importance of the simple gesture of delivering the meals. A spry 89, she hopes to live on her own for as long as she can.
“It used to be that families all stayed within a few blocks of each other, but it doesn’t happen like that anymore,” said McManamon, who has volunteered at Meals on Wheels for more than 20 years. “You really feel like you’re helping another person. And we really get to know the clients — if I take some time off, they all ask about me and worry for me. I know I would like to stay in my home for as long as I can, and if bringing a meal to someone helps them do that, it’s worth a lot. It also keeps their relatives happy, helps them to know we are checking in on them.”
Although they are not a “social services agency,” volunteers and Feldmeth often act as one. There have been times when Meals on Wheels volunteers find their clients confused or in distress, either not feeling good or incapacitated. They make simple phone calls to family contacts or paramedics, if need be.
“I love all of these folks,” said Elliott Hine, who has volunteered at Meals on Wheels for some 18 years, and whose parents volunteered for the nonprofit before him. “You get really attached to your clients; we see them all the time. You see them go through sicknesses, sometimes they get better, and some of them pass on. There are some sad times, but there are some really good times. It’s just a great way to give back; I look forward to it.”
With the rising cost of institutional care — one year of home-delivered meals equals less than a one-day hospital stay or one week in a nursing home — Feldmeth pointed out that the nonprofit is helping people maintain a quality of life.
“Many of our clients have outlived most of their family and their friends. It’s a personal decision when they decide they can no longer live on their own, but if we can help them live independently in their home for as long as possible, surrounded by their memories and their personal belongings … that means so much to them,” Feldmeth said. “For many of them, especially if they’re low income, where they would be moving to is not a place most of us would want to go.”
Like many nonprofits, Pasadena Meals on Wheels has faced its challenges, but Feldmeth is determined to carry its mission forward. She began volunteering for the organization in 2004 through the Pasadena Area Chapter of National Charity League with her daughter, but later stayed on as she saw the need. She has cooked, packed food, done bookkeeping and just about everything else. Now in her third year as president, Feldmeth has helped the charity navigate a new home. Its 53-year residence at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church came to an end earlier this year, as the church sold off its parking lots for development.
Luckily, Meals on Wheels found a new home at the First United Methodist Church just down the road, but had to make some organizational changes along the way. It stopped preparing all meals and fresh foods (contracting out through another food provider) and scaled back on administrative positions. The result will hopefully be a healthier nonprofit that can operate and serve clients for many years to come, Feldmeth emphasized.
The organization has an annual budget of about $190,000, 95% of which goes directly to programming, making the operation especially dependent on volunteers.
“The challenges that we face now are also opportunities — we’re in a better position to meet the need of a population that is growing,” she said, noting they can now provide meals on request to meet special dietary needs.