Meals on Wheels helps keep seniors in their homes

You've heard the joke about the cats in heaven who just loved the roller-skating mice, but Meals on Wheels is a very real program that helps hundreds of senior citizens stay in their Seattle and King County homes.

"It's a frozen meals program," explained Judy Ruehlmann, community program manager for Meals on Wheels.

Program participants may order as many as 14 or as few as seven meals per week. The meals, prepared by a caterer in Spanaway, near Tacoma, are delivered once a week.

Participants must be at least 60 years old and homebound or need assistance to get out of the house, either a person or a mechanical device such as a wheelchair, walker or cane.

Olga Northwood, 88, has been using the program since she returned to her home to recuperate after a stint in a nursing home about nine months ago.

"I order a certain amount of frozen meals for the week and they deliver it. The meals on Wheels helped me a lot," she said.

It relieves Northwood of preparing food and then cooking it. She said she just can't stand that long.

Meals on Wheels has 1,330 clients in Seattle. There are another 1,550 clients spread through King County. Spouses and caregivers are also eligible for the program so they can eat together, and it saves the caregiver from having to cook all the time.

The federal government provides funding for the program through the Older Americans Act, and Meals on Wheels has been in operation for more than 30 years. The program, while subsidized, is not free and clients are requested to make a $3 donation per meal. The federal funding is a bit precarious these days.

"We don't know what the cuts will be," Ruehlmann said. "[Our funding has] been pretty flat for the past several years and our costs have been going up."

Last year the program delivered more than 521,000 meals to participants in Pierce, Snohomish and King counties. The food is delivered by volunteer drivers, except in Seattle, where the concentration of participants is so great that meals are delivered by paid staff.

Meals must meet federal standards for nutrition, each meal containing a balance of foods and meeting one third of the participant's recommended daily nutritional requirements. To meet these requirements the program offers 31 different lunches/dinners and five different breakfasts. Each of the lunch/dinners contains an entrée, a starch, vegetables, rolls and dried milk.

Among the most popular meals are Salisbury steak, fish stuffed with broccoli and cheese and fried chicken with mashed potatoes. Breakfast offerings include egg dishes, pancakes or French toast and juice.

"They are plain and filling," Northwood said. "It's a decent meal. You put it in the oven for a half hour and you can eat."

The meals are also micro-waveable. Participants do need some way to keep the meals frozen until they are ready to use them. Some clients have such tiny freezers in their refrigerator that they have to limit the number of meals they can order.

Northwood said she does not have a favorite meal, she orders a variety of meals so she does not get tired of them. She is careful to avoid meals that have a lot of sugar because she is diabetic. She said when she returned home she was in a wheelchair and now she is getting around with a walker. Having cooking chores lifted from her gives her more time to rest and recuperate.

"You know, I think the vegetable lasagna is my favorite," she volunteered after reconsidering. She added that she thought that the meal program should be available to anyone who can't cope with his or her situation.

"When you're hungry, you'll eat anything," Northwood said. "And if it's tasty, better. And if it's balanced, better yet. And it's easy."

Besides Meals on Wheels, homebound seniors are also eligible for the Mobile Market program. Mobile Market stocks more than 300 grocery store items, most of them, except for dairy, are non-perishable, and then will take orders and deliver the goods to the client's residence at prices comparable to regular supermarkets. That saves the participants the trouble of going to the store, since most of them don't drive and they can't just hop on a bus.

Ruehlmann stressed that the program is always looking for volunteer drivers, and donations are also very welcome. Meals on Wheels can be reached at 448-5767 or by turning your browser to

Korte Bruekmann may be reached through[[In-content Ad]]