"Without these meals I'd have to live on peanut butter and crackers, or nothing at all," said Hilda Evans, as she savored her steaming hot lunch of chicken stew, asparagus and succotash, which ahd been delivered to her a few moments before.

Evans, 75, suffers from circulatory difficulties that have confined her to a wheelchair for four years. She can no longer shop or cook, and is one of about 350 elderly or ill people who depend on Meals on Wheels in the District to deliver a combination hot lunch and cold supper to their homes each weekday.

Meals on Wheels allows many people like Evans, who might otherwise have to enter nursing homes, to continue living independently in their own homes.

Seven separate Meals on Wheels programs serve various sections of the District. Evans'meals, for instance, are prepared at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, which 1971 established the first Meals on Wheels program in the city.

The New York Avenue program, like the others, palns menus with the help of a nutritionst. Special diets for diabetics are accomodated. Meals are prepared in the church kitchen. Little or no salt is used in cooking.

The cost of five cold meals in the District ranges from $10.20 to $12.00. One programs offers meals seven days a week. Persons unable to pay funds provided by the Older Americans Act also help meet costs.

People may go onto Meals on Wheels for a short time during convalescence from an illness or hospitalization, or on a longtime basis. For some elderly people, Meals on Wheels is the only daily contact with the outside world.

The original idea of home-delivered meals reaches back to London during World War II, when it was found that many elderly people were living in bombed-out quarters unable to shop, cook, or get to the communal soup kitchens which had been set up. Prepared meals had to be driven to them on a daily basis. The idea spread to the United States in 1954, when a program began in Philadelphia. During the 1960s, the concept caught on in other cities; todaythere are several thousand Meals on Wheels programs in the United States.

The seven programs serving the District depend on volunteers who contribute time as food shoppers, packers, kitchen managers, administrators, drivers and visitors. Most volunteers are retired people who may be older than those they serve.

Teams of two volunteers load the meals into insulated boxes and then drive their routes, one person remaining in the car while the other personally delivers the lunch and dinner combinations from an old-fashioned wicker basket.

Instructions for volunteers are never to leave a door unanswered. If there is no answer after repaeated efforts, volunteers then reports this to their coordinator, who determines how to handle the problem - in some cases it may meancalling the police to check into the situation.

Parking in the District is a problem for volunteers. But the police department has allowed double parking for the few moments it takes to deliver meals. In fact, one policeman became so interested inthe program that he helped deliver meals for several months.

"People do become attached to the program," says Sara Turlington, founder and director of the New York Avenue program. Turlington describes friendships between clients and volunteers as often very warm. "Although it is not part of their job, our volunteers often find themselves helping clients with correspondence or arranging medical appointments," she says.

But Turlington points out there is a chronic shortage of volunteers for several District Meals on Wheels, including hers. Needy people are on the waiting lists of some programs because there are not enough volunteers to serve him.

In a few parts of the District, such as 11th Street east to North Capitol and the H Street NE corridor, there are no home-delivered meals. This gap in service, which exists most often in inner city and rural areas, is the reason that Congress is now considering several bills to establish a national Meals on Wheels program. Although the Older Americans Act provides some limited funding for home-delivered meals, no cohesive national efforts exists to see that all home-bound Americans across the United States are provided with daily nutritions meals.

There is some controversy as to whether a federal program would introduce a complex, expensive bureaucracy where a simple and successful volunteer system exists in many areas, but some say there may be no other way to serve hard-to-reach areas.

Meanwhile, at least for Mrs. Evans, who has no relatives in the Washington area, Meals on Wheels "is lovely."

Information and Referral Service of the Confederation of Meals on Wheels of the Greater Washington, D.C. Area; 434-1922 between 10:00 and 1:00 p.m.

Capitol Hill Meals on Wheels, 421 Seward Square SE, Washington, D.C.; 546-1000.

Far East Meals on Wheels, 4925 E. Capitol Street SE, Washington, D.C.; LU 4-8322.

East of the River Meals on Wheels, 2220 Branch Avenue SE, Washington D.C. 20020; 583-0646.

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, 1313 New York Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20005; 393-3949.

Parishes United for Meals on Wheels, 4520 12th Street NE, Laboure Hall G3 (Providence Hospital,) Washington, D.C. 20017; 635-8985.

Upper Northwest Washington Meals on Wheels, Emory Methodist Church, 6100 Georgia Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20011; 723-5617.

Ward Circle - Georgetown Meals on Wheels, 4101 Nebraska Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20016; 537-2871.