Although volunteer Neil Scott spends about 30 hours a week taking meals to homebound persons through the Capitol Hill Meals on Wheels program, he's quick to stress that there's no such thing as a free lunch.
Scott 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. He says he fears that federal regulations attached to the federal funds would destroy Meals on Wheels.
The Eagleton bill is at the heart of a current 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 currently funded largely by contributions from religious, fraternal and civic organizations, private donations and charities.
Some volunteers and groups claim federal funding would introduce a complex, expensive bureaucracy 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 biggest worry is that federal funding means imposing federal regulations, and the more money you take the more regulations you must follow," said Scott, a part-time Capitol Hill post office employe. "When you're used to your independence, you don't want any regulations."
As a volunteer organization, Meals on Wheels provides more than food for the stomach, Scott claims. It provides social contact for the elderly and a sense of community involvement for the volunteer. He contends that increased federal funding will discourage volunteers because they'll see less of a need for their services.
But Eagleton's legistlative 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, nothing 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 means currently served with Title VII fudns, 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 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 the District received 3118 percent of Title VII funds, or $1,237,500, 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.
The District has seven Meals on Wheels programs serving approximately 350 elderly or ill persons. Most groups charge $12.50 for five hot and five cold meals each week, but may charges less or nothing at all, depending on the client's ability to pay.
Representatives of the District's Meals on Wheels programs expressed mixed emotions over the Eagleton bill.
"I'm in favor of it. I've lived with federal regulations all of my life, and we need the money," said Joe Frazier of the Far East Meals on Wheels, whose group serves 17 persons, all more than 70 years old. "The main thing is that the elderly people get fed."
"For us, any government subsidy would be a hindrance," said Ruth Wolski, president of the Ward Circle-Georgetown Meals on Wheels that serves 110 persons in Ward 3. "If it would restrict us we aren't interested, but those programs that need money should have it with no strings attached.
"Federal funding would put a completely different complexion on the whole thing. Volunteers are very independent people and like the nice feeling of doing something for someone else. You couldn't pay them to do what they do. It would rob it of its heart."
Wolski noted that some volunteers fear their programs would be squeezed out of business if they were to complete with strong government - subsidized programs, but added that needy programs should be able to receive some federal funds.
"Each area should be allowed to get the help that is needed," she said. "I would simply want something passed that would allow enough leeway so Meals on Wheels as they stand now could continue."
David Shaw, general chairman of the East of the River Meals on Wheels, said his group would welcome the federal money, but not the federal strings.
"We would welcome the funding if it came without heavy strings attached," said Shaw, whose group serves 30 persons and operates on client payments and private contributions.
"We don't want to prove ourselves to the federal government.If it (receiving funds) means meeting a lot of standards and paperwork, it's not worth the energy."