Day of Champions: Meals on Wheels celebrates volunteers

Community leaders came together on Thursday with Missoula Aging Services to celebrate the volunteers who help the Meals on Wheels program go on each day as part of the 15th annual international March for Meals event. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Dozens of volunteers set off into a spring storm on Thursday to deliver 290 meals to home-bound seniors and other Missoula residents who otherwise would have little to eat and no contact with the outside world.

While more than 100 volunteers have done the same each day over the past year, serving 800 people with more than 100,000 meals, Thursday’s effort marked the 15th annual March for Meals event – a day in which similar programs from across the country celebrate the Meals and Wheels program.

Susan Kohler, chief executive officer with Missoula Aging Services, calls out the volunteers who keep the Meals on Wheels program going. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“We promote the independence, dignity and health of older adults and those who care for them,” said Susan Kohler. “There’s not a better example than our Meals on Wheels program. It helps people stay in their own home and it gives them that daily contact.”

Kohler, the chief executive officer of the Missoula Aging Services, praised the program’s team of volunteers, calling them an essential link between the city’s home-bound seniors and the outside world.

Each day, those volunteers pick up their route map from the Providence Center and load their vehicles with food, delivering them door-to-door to the program’s clients. They also look around the home and engage the elderly in conversation.

It’s a welcome check for those who rely on the services.

“Meals on Wheels has really helped me,” said Margaret, one of the program’s clients. “The food is good and tasty, with salt and pepper. I appreciate the fact that the drivers always take a quick look around to see if I’m up or down. I’ve been up so far.”

Thursday’s celebration brought together a long list of community leaders, including representatives for Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, Mayor John Engen, city council member Julie Armstrong, and Missoula County Commissioners Jean Curtiss and Dave Strohmaier.

Curtiss said the county remains a strong advocate of the program and continues to provide funding, ensuring residents outside the city limits also get the meals they need, including those who live in Condon, Seeley Lake and Potomac.

“While the program run by Aging Services can meet the older American requirement, there are folks younger than that who have disabilities and also need help,” Curtiss said. “It really doesn’t matter what your age is on your birth certificate or your driver’s license. It matters that you need help and need help staying in your home.”

Kohler said the program enables older residents and those with disabilities to maintain their independence and avoid premature placement in a nursing home. While most of the clients are over the age of 60, the program also provides services to those who have physical and mental disabilities that prevent them from preparing their own meals.

On behalf of Gov. Steve Bullock, Ashley Tubbs noted that by 2030, Montana will have the third highest percentage of people over the age of 65 in the country. Programs like Meals on Wheels is vital to retaining their nutrition and overall health.

To great fanfare, volunteers load up the meals on Thursday for home delivery. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“Our state is better when our seniors have the services they need to live independently and in their homes,” read Tubbs, a former Meals on Wheels volunteer. “Protecting our most vulnerable citizens is a responsibility we all share.”

Over the past few weeks, the program has come up in political debates regarding budget cuts in the 2017 state Legislature. Missoula Aging Services must raise $100,000 annually to fund the Meals on Wheels on program, though the majority of the funding comes from state and federal sources.

At a Missoula rally last week, Debbie Lester of Missoula Aging services said that while the cost to feed a senior through the Meals on Wheels program stands at roughly $200 a year, it costs more than $6,000 a year to house them in nursing home.

The issue of social costs and health care wasn’t overlooked by Sen. Jon Tester, who said one in four Montana seniors are living at or near poverty. Tester was represented Thursday by his field staffer Deb Frandsen.

“I’m particularly concerned about the new proposed repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act,” Frandsen read. “One part of the replacement bill that surfaced this week will permit health insurance companies to charge older Americans five times as much for their premiums than they would for younger Americans. That’s not a solution for folks preparing for their retirement years.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com