Although Audrey Clapp coordinates the delivery of Meals on Wheels to more than 125 homebound persons in Northern Virginia, she's quick to stress that there's no such thing as a free lunch.
Clapp is a vocal opponent of a bill sponsored by Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D.-Mo.) that would authorize Congress to appropriate $100 million for nutrition programs for the homebound elderly. She says she fears that federal regulations attached to the federal funds would destroy Meals on Wheels.
The Eagleton bill is at the heart of a controversy surrounding the nonprofit volunteer service that provides home delivery of two complete meals, five days a week, to persons who cannot shop or cook for themselves. Meals on wheels is now funded largely by contributions from religious, fraternal anc civic organizations, private donations and charities.
Some volunteers and groups claim federal funding would introduce a complex, expensive bureaucracy that might cripple the existing, successful volunteer programs. They argue that funding legislated solely for the homebound elderly would leave out the younger, homebound ill persons currently served by Meals on Wheels.
Others say the federal funding is necessary to help serve needy persons and would not infringe on existing programs. Volunteer drivers are difficult or impossible to find in rural areas or in crime-ridden inner city areas, they contend, making government-paid drivers the only solution to serving the homebound elderly in these areas.
"Our local opinion is that we feel the less control the government has, the more we like it," said Clapp, coordinator of Meals on Wheels of Northern Virginia, which serves Arlington, Falls Church, Annandale and McLean.
"When the government steps in, first off there's unbelievable paperwork, then they say there must be four windows in every kitchen, cooks with hair only three inches long - regulations that go on ad absurdum."
Clapp noted that her group is running smoothly and efficiently with about 500 volunteers, each averaging one day of service a month. She said that several volunteers told her they would quit if the government interferred with the existing Meals on Wheels programs.
"We don't need help, we don't want help and there must be other places to put the efforts of the government rather than in something that's working."
But Eagleton's legislative assistant, Steve Roling, said the senator's bill is not intended to take over the existing Meals on Wheels programs, and goes out of its way to protect the volunteer service.
"The simple fact is that federal money is a help to many communities who need and want aid," said Roling, noting that Eagleton discussed the bill with the National Association of Meals on Wheels and incorporated their suggestions in writing the legislation.
Many Meals on Wheels programs are already receiving federal funds under Title VII of the Aging Americans Act, and have not raised the issue of a government take over, Roling said. Federal regulations for Eagleton's bill have not yet been written, but would probably be similar to current Title VII regulations, he noted.
Home-delivered meals account for about 15 percent of all meals currently served with Title VII funds, according to Charles Wells of the Administration on Aging. Recipients of these meals must be persons over 60 who do not have an adequate diet.
While the current federal law offers some broad guidelines, such as a recommendation that elderly persons with the greatest economic and social needs be given priority, specific decisions on management of local programs are left up to state and community agencies, Wells said.
Title VII funds have been alloted to each of the 56 federal jurisdictions according to a formula that calculates the percentage of older people in a jurisdiction in relation to the number of older people in all the federal jurisdictions. Under this formula Virginia received 1.9666 percent of Title VII funds, or $4,669,871, in fiscal 1978.
Federal money would be welcome and might help Meals on Wheels expand its services, according to Peggy Sheeler, president of the National Association of Meals on Wheels and director of the Central Maryland program.
"We have been able to use some federal grants to extend service to more people, and it has not been my experience to have any problems with the use of federal funds," said Sheeler, who has been with Meals on Wheels for 14 years.
Virginia has nine Meals on Wheels programs serving approximately 250 elderly or ill persons. Most groups charge $12.50 for five hot and five cold meals each week, but may charge less or nothing at all, depending on the client's ability to pay.
Edith Ettinger, treasurer of the 15-year-old Alexandria Meals on Wheels program, said she is "not at all scared someone is going to come in and impose on existing Meals on Wheels."
"It is going to be very much up to the community itself to go after money," she added, noting that any new program probably wouldn't get enough federal money to compete with successful Alexandria Meals on Wheels.
Ettinger said her group is already receiving Title VII funds and has not experienced problems in accepting the federal money, but is waiting to see if existing federal regulations are changed.