A Meals on Wheels program fights crime perception and funding cutsby Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
For the first time in its 36 years, the Meals on Wheels program in north Minneapolis has a waiting list. The program has lost many of its volunteers and it's having a hard time recruiting new ones. This loss is putting an extra financial strain on the program after receiving a big budget cut for 2008.
St. Paul, Minn. — "This is Meals on Wheels," says Claire Ryden over his cell phone. "We'll be there in one minute."
Ryden is a volunteer with north Minneapolis Meals on Wheels. Along with his friend Jerry Eliason, they work as driver and food runner. One day recently they're taking food to Delia Van Liew. After handing Van Liew her meals, Eliason checks on her health.
Van Liew, who gets meals every weekday, is one of 160 seniors who depend on the north Minneapolis Meals on Wheels. The branch gets its funding from a Title III federal program for seniors who are nutritionally at risk and isolated, and from a Hennepin County program for those who are chronically ill or disabled.
"Last night I made chili and I'm telling you, it just about killed me," says Van Liew.
Van Liew has a lot of health problems: a bad arm, a bad eye, and lupus, which affects her joints and makes her really tired.
"I mean that's a simple thing to make but it requires a lot of standing and I had to take little breaks and sit down because (it) felt like my back was going to break. And then when I finished the meal I went and laid down and stretched my body out."
Before she got sick, Van Liew socialized a lot. Now that she's homebound, she likes getting daily visits from volunteers like Ryden and Eliason.
"These people come to you door, and they're so jolly and so friendly, they almost...they pick you up," says Van Liew. "When you're feeling down, they pick you up and I feel good about that."
The demand for Meals on Wheels is growing. The north Minneapolis branch generated its first waiting list in September. Waiting lists among local branches are rare. Six people are still on that list in north Minneapolis because the branch doesn't have the money and the volunteers to deliver food to everyone who needs it.
The delivery staff is quickly aging.
"New volunteers are not coming on at the rate that our seniors who are volunteering for us are retiring," says Denise Harris, executive director of the north Minneapolis branch.
She won't know until some time in January when she has a new, smaller budget if she'll even have enough money to serve those waiting for meals.
Harris' program recently received a more than 70 percent budget cut for next year. Many of the other branches in the metro area are also getting funding cuts, but the North Minneapolis branch received the steepest.
"We need about 5000 volunteer hours a year," says Harris. "Right now we are operating on about 3500 volunteer hours and that is the reason why we have to pay drivers to deliver the meals."
The north Minneapolis branch alone delivers almost 200 meals a day. Harris expects to go part-time in 2008 to stretch the program's money. She says having more volunteers would ease some of the financial strain.
But she says recruiting them is a challenge for two main reasons: Those who live in north Minneapolis can't afford to volunteer and those who live outside of north Minneapolis don't want to because they think the neighborhoods are too dangerous. This is the only branch where crime is directly affecting recruitment.
"We actually have people here who would go hungry on the north side without this program," says Harris. "So it's absolutely critical that we gather more volunteer hours in 2008 so we can keep the operation afloat."
There's no reason to fear the north side. Her volunteers are respected and they've never been assaulted, she says.
For now, staff and volunteers at the north Minneapolis branch are coming up with creative ways to cut their costs, fund raise, and plan partnerships with local businesses and colleges to recruit more volunteers. The branch, along with other local Meals on Wheels providers, is also in the process of appealing the budget cuts.
- All Things Considered, 11/21/2007, 5:50 p.m.