On the Road with Meals on Wheels

Photo of a Meals on Wheels volunteer delivering a meal to a senior woman.


Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks


It’s about 10:15 am when I pull my car into the Rocky Mountain Development Center building in Helena. I head into the center to pick up my allotment of meals for my delivery route for the Meals on Wheels (MOW) program. I’m a volunteer driver for MOW, which is a catchy moniker for a program aimed at providing nutritional, low-cost meals to folks who, for a multitude of reasons, are having difficulty in fixing their own meals. 

It began as a national program in 1972 with an amendment to the Older Americans Act that focused on nutritional needs of a growing population of senior citizens. The national program was modeled on a 1954 community effort to help seniors with food needs in—where else but the city of “Brotherly Love”—Philadelphia. 

After loading up my 40-plus meals, I count them and compare numbers to those on my client list for the day, to make sure no one misses a meal, and I head out to make my deliveries. 

My first stop is an address about a half mile from the Rocky building, where I am greeted by Linda (I have changed most names on my real delivery route, to prevent any embarrassment to my clients).

Linda is one of my favorites (I’m sorry, but I have a bunch of favorites because of their upbeat and pleasant demeanors). Linda always answers her door with a smile and a comment about the weather or the road conditions. I always try to make a joke, and Linda always responds with a laugh, no matter how lame the joke—of course, she would be a favorite!

Next, I deliver to George, who isn’t as old as most of my clients. George, however, is in a wheelchair and has trouble getting to the door. He is always polite and thankful that I bring the meals inside for him to easily access. I can’t help but think when I leave George’s home that there, but for the grace of God, go I.

My next two home visits are to Bea and Harriet, who also always respond to my knocks with smiles and heartfelt appreciation for the meals. Bea has a rambunctious dog, so she prefers to retrieve her meal that I hang on her doorknob, rather than chat at the door. Harriet, on the other hand, does like to chat at the door, so we go on a bit about persnickety Montana weather and whatever else comes up that day.

Next up is a visit to a couple, Ben and Joyce, who have a noisy, white barking dog named Molly. It must be a small world, because my wife and I also have a noisy, white dog named Molly that rules the roost. I hang their meals on the doorknob, back off a bit to mollify Molly, and we part with hearty waves when they retrieve the meals.

Jim and Dwain, a father and son, are next on my route. Dwain always answers the knock to pick up meals for his dad and himself. He also always has a gracious smile and thanks me for the food. He also likes to chat, and his love for his dad is obvious as he tells me about recent trips and joyrides the two have taken in the Helena foothills. 

By about 12:30 or 1 o’clock, I have finished all deliveries and am headed back to Rocky to return food containers and turn in my time and delivery sheet. 

In the interests of keeping this missive short and sweet, I have skipped describing many of my clients on a typical weekly delivery. I must also admit that I have not personally met or had a chance to converse with some folks on my route after a year of driving. Let me say simply that some people have chosen not to interact with their MOW driver for a variety of reasons. 

Some are late sleepers and wish not to be disturbed, and some probably are still wary of any contact with outsiders because of the COVID calamity. 

I will say I have not had any negative comments directed toward me or the MOW program in general. As a volunteer driver, all the smiles I see speak volumes about the popularity of the program in my Helena community.

The MOW program has grown over the past 50 years as has the percentage of the national population over the age of 60. In 2019, the national program supported about 5,000 local community groups that delivered about 150 million meals to more than 880 thousand home-bound seniors. 

In Montana in 2019, MOW delivered 847 thousand meals to about 8,000 at-home seniors. In Helena, the Rocky Mountain Development Center spearheads MOW deliveries in a large, three-county area and delivered 76 thousand meals to about 700 seniors in 2021. 

Each community MOW program operates as a hybrid nonprofit organization that receives a mix of funding from the federal government (around 40 percent) with the remainder coming from state and local governments, grants, and donations, including food donations and volunteer drivers and other volunteer staff workers. 

Each community program has its own house rules and regulations, but all must meet national requirements for food nutrition and safety. 

All community programs require that MOW drivers focus on meal delivery in person, so drivers and clients can interact. If folks do not answer door knocks or phone calls, drivers call their community MOW office, so more formal welfare checks can be made. 

While nutritional needs are key, MOW emphasizes the importance of person-to-person contact to combat isolation and loneliness as well as to check client welfare. In a large, low-population state like Montana, isolation and loneliness can be particularly acute. The COVID pandemic exacerbated the worry and isolation of seniors, and some are understandably still a bit wary of close contact with anyone, including MOW drivers. 

If this description of a typical volunteer driver day has piqued your interest in the MOW program, and you think you’d enjoy volunteering to help some really gracious folks who need a hand in getting some nutritious meals in their homes, please contact your local senior center or Meals on Wheels outlet. 

If you live in the Helena area, the appropriate contact would be Amy Anderson (406-457-7311), Rocky Mountain Development Center, Neighborhood Center, 200 South Cruse Avenue, Helena, MT59601. I hope to see you on the road with some Meals on Wheels! MSN

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