Ellie Hollander is president and chief executive of Meals on Wheels America.
As you read this, Murel Johnson is probably driving. For the past 16 years, the 93-year-old has delivered fresh, hot meals to older Americans and people with disabilities across Lake Oswego, Ore. She knows that for the 20 people she will visit during the course of her route, she is a lifeline — likely providing the only companionship and nutritious meal they will have all day.
Johnson is exactly the kind of unpaid volunteer President Richard Nixon imagined when he signed an amendment to the Older Americans Act 45 years ago. He established the nation’s nutrition program for seniors 60 years and older with the faith that if the federal government helped fund the meals, an army of volunteers would provide the wheels.
The new administration recently shined a curious spotlight on that work when it proposed cutting a handful of federal programs that fund Meals on Wheels in communities across the United States. Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, suggested that Meals on Wheels “sounds great ,” but that it — along with other social programs referenced — is ineffective. That doesn’t square with the experience of local communities or the outcomes of dozens of studies, which have found that the program is already stretching inadequate funds to get results.
We’re grateful for the outpouring of support — including a surge in new volunteers — since the president announced his budget blueprint. In fact, we’re so certain of the difference Meals on Wheels is making that I’d like to extend a public invitation to President Trump and members of his administration to experience it firsthand: Come ride with us. Go on deliveries with our volunteers and see our work with your own eyes.
Mr. President, come to Oakland and Macomb counties, Mich., and ride with Diane and John, who have delivered meals for decades. They will introduce you to a few of the 4,900 people served across both counties each day. You will see how a nutritious meal and friendly visit can reduce expensive and unnecessary visits to the emergency room, admissions to hospitals and premature placement in nursing homes — because Meals on Wheels helps people live independently. That’s why one 2013 study found that if every state increased the number of older Americans who received meals by just 1 percent, it would have saved Medicaid more than $109 million a year.
Come to Alexandria, Va., and ride with Gerry, who has delivered meals for nine years on a route organized through his church. He will introduce you to the seniors on his standard run — the average recipient being a single 75-year-old woman living alone with little or no mobility and multiple chronic conditions. You will see how daily visits reduce loneliness, depression and falls — which alone cost the United States more than $31 billion a year.
Come to San Mateo County, Calif., and ride with Glenda and Gordon, who for five years have served a full day’s worth of nutrition to some of the 600 local residents who receive Meals on Wheels. These are people who otherwise wouldn’t have something to eat — including a number of vulnerable veterans without families.
Over the past four-and-a-half decades, volunteers have delivered more than 8 billion meals, leveraging an additional $3 in private, state and local funding for every $1 invested by taxpayers. We know this work — helping 2.4 million seniors every year — is among the wisest and most efficient uses of tax dollars anywhere.
But this is about more than meals. This is about dignity. This is about the kind of country we want to be. Meals on Wheels is already serving 23 million fewer meals than we did in 2005. At a time when another 10,000 Americans will turn 65 every single day until 2030, we must renew our commitment to this program, which delivers an entire year of service for less than it costs to stay in a hospital for one day. As Nixon knew, sometimes investing a dollar on the front end saves many, many more dollars — and lives — on the back end.
In 2014, one American who studied the work of Meals on Wheels concluded that “the program is well targeted towards the low-income elderly and to those with increased risk for nutrition and health problems.” That American is House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who wrote those words in his War on Poverty report. Ride with us, and you’ll see why.