Friday, 18 October 2013

The end of the road for meals on wheels?

It might come as a surprise that meals on wheels - the daily delivery of hot food to the nation’s pensioners - began life as an emergency wartime measure.

Launched in Welwyn Garden City in 1943, the Women’s Voluntary Service saw it as an essential way to get food to elderly people alienated by the disruption of war.

The idea obviously caught on: by 1962, four million meals were being dished out nationwide each year. Meals on wheels continues today, provided by charities, councils and local voluntary groups.

But it’s not what it was.

Numbers are down dramatically on their post-war peak. Leeds City Council, for example, says that it only serves daily meals to 500 of its 750,000 residents, less than a tenth of a percent.

The drop is partly due to supermarkets, undercutting meals on wheels by offering a bigger choice of ready meals for about half the cost of a delivered dinner. Partly, it’s the pinch on local authorities and voluntary groups alike, unable to subsidise as many services as before.

But there has also been a marked drop in meal quality. Meals on wheels were, until relatively recently, proper dinners, cooked from scratch in real kitchens. In the war, that meant British Restaurants, subsequently local authority or charity canteens - but almost always with fresh ingredients and using traditional, homely recipes.

Sadly the deep freeze and the microwave put a stop to that, and today the majority of meals are factory-produced, frozen, and reheated to the sound of a ping. And that means they tend to be very low in the nutrients so essential to older people.

So is it time to stop feeding this stuff to our pensioners?

Many say not. Meals on wheels, claim its supporters, are a sort of care visit, often the only contact that a lonely pensioner gets in a day.

But detractors point out that the quality of most meals on wheels is so low that they are at best depriving pensioners of a healthy, balanced diet and at worse, hastening their decline.

And there is another, inadvertent reason that meals on wheels might not be doing our pensioners any favours.

Most health professionals agree that older people benefit from being active for as long as possible; from getting out of the house on a regular basis; from maintaining their independence. And what better incentive to get out, to shop and to cook, than the daily need to eat?

Indeed, as the culture of social services moves away from paternal, dependent care towards empowering old people and promoting their dignity, what better way to restore a pensioner’s independence than to get them shopping and cooking for themselves once more?

Certainly if numbers continue to decline at their current rate, meals on wheels could well disappear of its own accord. But before we lament its loss - or rush to find a replacement - let us give some serious thought to how we want the future to look.

The choice is between a world where old people, isolated in their homes get one frozen meal a day; or one where pensioners get out, meet people, do some shopping and cooking, and generally look after themselves.

It’s a hard debate to have, because in criticising meals on wheels, we attack a service that is inherently kindly and charitable. But perhaps meals on wheels is a kindness too far, one that contributes, albeit inadvertently, to a culture of isolation and dependency. Perhaps this 70-year-old institution has indeed come to the end of the road.

By Daniel Ward

Image by Ambro,

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