Facing Tough Economic Times, Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels Struggles to Meet a Growing Demand

Each day a team of 10-15 Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels volunteers prepares and delivers nearly 300 meals for elderly and disabled city residents.

By Tom Perkins | AnnArbor.com

Each day a team of 10-15 Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels volunteers prepares and delivers nearly 300 meals for elderly and disabled city residents.

Each day a team of 10-15 Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels volunteers prepares and delivers nearly 300 meals for elderly and disabled city residents.

The demand for their services is so great that the waiting list is 60 names long. But because of the area’s poor economy, the group is facing new financial struggles, and for the first time has instituted a freeze on its waiting list.

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That means a low-income, sick, disabled or elderly resident who may not have any other way to eat or prepare a meal could be left without a lifeline.

“It’s such an essential service and we could potentially provide the only meal (a recipient) gets during the day, so it’s not easy to say ‘no,’” said Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels director Ann Harris.

The recipients’ situations vary. Around 80 percent are elderly, and some of the seniors can’t prepare their own food and need regular service. Others are recovering from a hospital stay after a stroke, for example, and only need assistance temporarily. A portion of clients are younger but have a medical condition or disability and need assistance, and about 40 percent of clients are diabetic.

For recipients in more dire situations, the Meals on Wheels volunteers may be their only daily contact with another person, and the volunteers also do “wellness checks.” Harris said delivery people get to know the residents and can access emergency contact information or quickly get in touch with family or friends if someone doesn’t answer the door.

“It’s about much more than just the meal,” Harris said.

The organization operates on a $440,000 annual budget and each meal served costs $6.50. An example of a typical meal includes meatloaf, a vegetable and bread. With the exception of a few special cases, the hot meals are delivered once daily.

Meals on Wheels is funded through several channels. Approximately one quarter is from the federal Older American Act, while fundraising accounts for nearly 25 percent. A portion also comes from the Washtenaw County general fund and individual donations, while recipient donations make up about 6 percent.

The biggest hit in funding has come through shrinking donations and designations. Meals on Wheels used to receive $54,000 in designations from the United Way, a figure that has dropped to $13,000. The group also received $7,000 less from the United Way general fund this year.

Harris said the United Auto Workers and Pfizer also used to offer annual donations, but neither has a major presence in the community any longer. Meanwhile, food and fuel costs are rising along with the number of individuals in need of service. Harris estimates about a 40 percent greater need for service in eastern Washtenaw County than western Washtenaw.

“We have fewer and fewer financial means, but an increasing number of recipients who are living in poverty,” she said. “We have to operate in the black, but it’s just very difficult right now.”

About half of Meals on Wheels’ funding goes directly to food costs and the other half covers overhead. The group has two part-time employees and has operated out of the same room in Ypsilanti’s First Baptist Church since its 1974 founding.

A food preparation contract is in place with the Eastern Michigan University Dining Services Department, where paid drivers go to pick up the meals daily.

One of the major expenses is fuel to operate the group’s five trucks Cathy McClure, a Meals on Wheels board member, said the organization is seeking donations from local gas stations.

The group is also continuing with its fundraising efforts and trying a new venture to generate earned income through a partnership with the Ypsilanti Senior Center. The two groups are creating a “mobile cafe” that combines their resources to offer fresh sandwiches, soups, salads and other items in a mobile kitchen that visits local business parks.

For more information on how to get involved or help with Meals on Wheels, contact Ann Harris on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. at (734) 487-9669.