Meals on Wheels-Woes

AKRON, Ohio (AP) - Agencies that provide meals for shut-ins say they're struggling to cope with rising food and fuel costs. One big problem: Volunteers, many of them retired and on fixed incomes, are dropping out because they can't afford the cost of gas.

Meals on Wheels for Stark and Wayne counties in northeast Ohio lost 60 volunteers in the spring and summer. Mobile Meals, serving primarily Summit and Portage counties, lost 25 volunteers. Agency officials say the volunteers have not returned even as gas has dipped under $2 a gallon. "I truly feel the ones we lost genuinely did not want to go," said Phil Marcin, Mobile Meals director of community resources and communities. "One guy was in tears about having to give it up, but he simply couldn't afford to continue."

Teresa Barry, chief executive of Meals on Wheels, says the problem is people see the current decline in gas prices as a temporary development that won't last. The departure of volunteers for economic reasons creates additional problems this time of year when so many retirees - who might normally help deliver meals - go south for the winter. Both agencies deliver from 10:30 a.m. to noon each weekday, which already eliminates a large segment of the working population from the volunteer pool. The agencies are also being hit by the rising cost of food: a meal that cost Meals on Wheels $6 in 2007 is $8 today.

The agencies also face additional costs when they have to substitute staff members for volunteer drivers to deliver meals. That means work isn't getting done in the office, plus employees must be paid more than twice as much in mileage reimbursement. Volunteer Cletus Gerber has worked for Meals on Wheels for 17 years and still drives the longest of the agency's 65 routes. He said he had reservations about continuing after gas hit $4 but felt he couldn't stop. Gerber, 87, a retired farmer, travels 70 miles each Wednesday through five small communities delivering meals to shut-ins and poor families. "I love doing it and I'll keep doing it as long as I'm healthy," Gerber said. "I love seeing the smiling faces I get to see every Wednesday."

 (Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)