By Todd Cohen
DURHAM, N.C. — Every weekday at 8:30 a.m., a dozen volunteers gather around tables in the offices of Meals on Wheels of Durham to assemble meals that another 30 volunteers will deliver the same morning to about 400 seniors and individuals with disabilities.
The volunteer drivers also spend a few minutes speaking with their clients, and making a quick visual assessment of the meal recipients’ mental and physical well-being. The volunteer drivers also deliver pet food for meal recipients who have pets and, on Fridays, deliver two bag lunches for the weekend for clients who request them.
Meals on Wheels is “more than a meal,” says Gale Singer Adland, who joined the nonprofit as executive director in 2009 after working for more than 30 years as a software programmer. “It’s a lot more than just bringing food to somebody.”
The group is one of nearly 5,000 community-based programs in the U.S. dedicated to feeding seniors, including programs serving nearly every one of North Carolina’s 100 counties, Adland says.
And as a member of Meals on Wheels America, she says, the free-standing Durham nonprofit benefits from research, education, advocacy and a national conferences, as well as group-buying discounts it otherwise might not have access to or be able to afford.
Founded in 1975 , Meals on Wheels of Durham operates with an annual budget of $900,000, three full-time and two part-time staff, a part-time bookkeeper, and nearly 200 volunteers.
Meals on Wheels, which does not have its own kitchen, pays less than $4 a meal to Spicy Green Gourmet, which cooks the meals and delivers them to the nonprofit each weekday morning for assembly and delivery by its volunteers.
Meals on Wheels also buys most of the ingredients for the weekend bag lunches that are delivered along with meals each Friday — although bread is free — from the Food Bank of Eastern and Central North Carolina, paying 18 cents a pound for nearly everything.
The nonprofit also gets donations of pet food for meal recipients’ pets from Paws on Durham, and from Walmart.
And with a $5,000 gift from Westminster Presbyterian Church, Meals on Wheels is partnering with Habitat for Humanity of Durham to install doorbells, door handles and ramps for meal recipients who need them.
Last year, in its annual survey of meal recipients, Meals on Wheels found that well over half of them did not have a working doorbell.
The nonprofit also partners with other organizations that provide volunteers, including the schools of public policy, law and nursing at Duke, and the Department of Nursing at North Carolina Central University.
Meals on Wheels has two contracts with Durham County that account for about half its annual revenue, and generates another 10 percent of its funds through contributions from about 15 percent of its clients.
And to address other needs they may have, it refers its clients to other nonprofits, including A Helping Hand, which assists with shopping, companionship and minor house upkeep.
Meals on Wheels generates its remaining funds from foundations, corporations, churches and individuals. In addition to fundraising appeals it mails each fall and spring, it will host its inaugural gala, presented by Ellis Family Law, on February 24 at 21C Museum Hotel.
According to research by Meals on Wheels America, Adland says, seniors who receive home-delivered meals, compared to seniors in similar circumstances who don’t receive meals, feel safer in their homes; said they were less depressed and more physically active; visited a doctor, urgent-care facility or emergency room less often; and had fewer hospital stays.
Yet with its annual client base growing by over two-third to 530 individuals in just two years, and the number of seniors in Durham County projected over the next 10 to 15 years to grow more than 60 percent, Meals on Wheels is looking for ways to meet growing demand for home-delivered meals.
“We have lots of people who want food,” Adland says. “The only thing preventing us from feeding them is more funding and more volunteers.”