Although volunteer Kathleen Saettler has been helping Bethesda's homebound elderly receive meals through Meals on Wheels for nearly six years, she's quick to stress that there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Saettler is an 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 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 now 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 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 program has taken a stand of keeping it as a volunteer program without government assistance," said Saettler, intake chairman of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Meals on Wheels program, which serves 70 persons.

"We've seen how it can work with just volunteers, and we'd hate to see it ruin the flavor," noted Saettler, who expressed a fear that if her group refused government funds, the county might not renew their kitchen's license. "If the government starts a competing program around the block, we may lose our clients."

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 its 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 been written, but would probably be similar to current Title VII regulations, he said.

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, specfic 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 Maryland received 1.5786 percent, or $3,748,358, of Title VII funds 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.

Fifteen Meals on Wheels programs serve about 450 elderly and ill persons in suburban Mayland. 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.

Representatives of Maryland Meals on Wheels programs expressed mixed emotions over the Eagleton bill.

"My personal judgement is it would be disasterous if the government took it over," said Jane Rankin of College Park Meals on Wheels, which serves about 60 persons. "We're community oriented, and it's best kept at a community level."

Lois Hoffman, president of the Greater Washington Area Meals on Wheels and coorindator of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Park Meals on Wheels said, however, that she favors the bill because some areas "need some kind of help desperately.

"Especially in rural areas, I doubt if you could get volunteers to drive," said Hoffman, who serves as a telephone referral person for the metropolitan area and says she gets calls from people in locations not currently served by Meals on Wheels. "Our program has stayed clear of controversy because we don't need monetary help."

Many groups prefer to rely totally on volunteers to avoid complicated federal paperwork, noted Ruth Wise, chairman of Wheaton Meals on Wheels and regional director for the national organization.

"In this area we have Meals on Wheels programs that are self-sufficient and don't need the funds, but there are others that quite possibly want help," she said.

Wise added that if less expensive meals are available from a competing, federally funded homebound nutrition program, the volunteer Meals on Wheels kitchens may be forced to accept federal funding to stay in business.