Throughout the pandemic, Meals on Wheels has reliably continued to provide the essential service it is so well known for, meals delivered to the doors of those in need.
Now the stalwart service is calling on the federal government to even up a disparity in funding, which means Meals on Wheels customers are often paying higher prices for their food, leaving vulnerable people with tough choices, such as do they eat or do they pay their electricity bill?
Meals on Wheels saw a doubling in demand in some areas during the pandemic, at the same time many of its volunteers withdrew their services, concerned about their age and the door-to-door nature of the work.
“One of the things that really shone through [during the pandemic] was how much the community relies on Meals on Wheels in times of emergency,” Meals on Wheels Australia President, Sharyn Broer, told HelloCare.
People who had been managing quite well on their own, suddenly saw their regular support, such as family help with shopping or weekly meals at the club, become no longer possible.
“In some areas, they are delivering up to 50 per cent more meals a day than they had been,” explained Ms Broer. Even where COVID-19 restrictions have been wound back, services have been experiencing a 20-25 per cent increase in demand.
At the same time, the service lost potentially half of its workforce overnight. But when Meals on Wheels put the call out to the community for new volunteers, they were overwhelmed with the support they received.
In South Australia, over a three-week period, 3,000 new volunteers offered to help, the equivalent of three years’ worth of volunteers prior to COVID-19.
Meals on Wheels was able to adapt quickly, developing a model for contactless delivery, which older volunteers were comfortable with. Younger volunteers did additional shifts, and daily hot meal services were replaced with twice-weekly frozen meal deliveries, for example.
But of course, Meals on Wheels is more than just a meal delivery service. Ms Broer says the service is a “light touch” and “cost-effective” way for families to ensure someone is checking in on their loved one.
Meals on Wheels delivers peace of mind for both consumers and families, while also providing nutritional food and creating connections that reduce feelings of social isolation.
Ms Broer said every day someone from Meals on Wheels will raise the alarm for a customer they are concerned about, whether it be noticing a limp, that they look unwell, or if they’ve had a fall. Many of those alarms end in calling an ambulance.
Even a brief exchange at the front door is enough for people to be able to check in on someone and to make them feel confident and supported to continue living independently, Mr Broer said.
The service has become increasingly flexible, offering varied delivery times and a choice of meals to make it easy for people to include them in a ‘healthy ageing’ plan. While Meals on Wheels’ core business is delivering hot meals, they also deliver frozen and cooled meals that customers can reheat when it suits them.
During the pandemic, the government has provided additional funding that has been available to Meals on Wheels after it was recognised the need to invest in shoring up food security during restricted periods.
A $60 million package was developed, with $9 million going to hampers for people who couldn’t do their grocery shopping, $40 million offsetting the increased costs of service delivery through COVID-19 for existing services, and $10 million going to surge capacity, to fund services where demand was exceeding existing levels of support.
“We really acknowledge and thank the government for their swift actions to make sure we were able to continue our service delivery when people are counting on it,” Ms Broer said.
However, outside the pandemic, Commonwealth funding for home-based meal services is “inequitable”, Ms Broer said.
Though meal services may be almost identical, meals funded through home care support packages or the NDIS receive higher funding than those funded through Commonwealth Home Support Packages, which funds most Meals on Wheels services.
The national average government funding for meals is around $9 with the consumer paying the rest of the cost. However, Meals on Wheels is funded at just $4.85 a meal (excluding COVID-19 benefits), creating a $4–$5 gap.
As a result, out of pocket costs for Meals on Wheels services are often higher than for other home delivery meal services.
“What we are calling on the government to do is to smooth out some of those discrepancies within the CHSP and home care packages,” Ms Broer told HelloCare.
Because of the funding discrepancies, people are going without food because they can’t afford it, Ms Broer said.
“We need to have this mis-match dealt with,” she said. Currently, people who need Meals on Wheels five days a week are choosing to only buy meals for three day because they have an electricity bill to pay or medication they need to buy.
“That is happening right now in Australia,” Ms Broer said.
“A couple might choose to have one delivered meal and share it between them. People who are living alone and are nutritionally at risk are making choices about having a meal delivered with the nutritional components for one meal, and they’re making it stretch over two or three meals.
“They’re choosing between heating and eating,” she said.
Because of Meals on Wheels’ limited resources, volunteers are spending time on coordination, planning, food ordering, consumer reviews and safety and quality practices.
“We’re having to pass that responsibility onto volunteers who are ageing and becoming very tired and anxious about it,” Ms Broer said.
“There’s an impact on the viability of the services and the longevity of the workforce.”
The matter has been under discussion for years, and though the government has given assurances the matter is being investigated, Ms Broer said Meals on Wheels is hoping for a “swift resolution”.
“We’re optimistic. We’d like the wheels to turn as rapidly as possible for this.”