There's no such thing as a free lunch.
A program that has provided hot meals to elderly residents at low or no cost for decades may soon be forced to pass on price increases.
High fuel prices and rising food costs are taking a toll on the budgets of agencies that provide the Meals on Wheels service, their directors say.
Most agencies rely on volunteer drivers to deliver the meals, and although drivers are offered reimbursement for their mileage, filling up at $4 a gallon can be intimidating -- especially when many are on fixed incomes themselves.
"We have a wonderful team of volunteers, and a lot of them donate the mileage," said May McClure, director of senior enrichment for the Erie County Senior Center. "When they see those gas prices, it scares them."
So far Erie County's Meals on Wheels program has been able to continue serving approximately 300 meals each day to county residents without placing anyone on a waiting list, McClure said. But there is concern whether they can continue to offset the rising costs in a donation-based program.
Though the suggested donation for each meal in Erie County is $2.50, the actual cost to the agency is approximately $4.50. Agency directors are also working to revise some of the driving routes to make deliveries more efficient and eliminate unnecessary fuel expenses.
Each morning at the Erie County Senior Center, a staff of kitchen employees prepares the meals while volunteers work along an assembly line to load them into insulated bags -- keeping the milk and fruit cold and the entrees hot.
On a recent Tuesday morning, volunteers Candi and Pete Groh loaded eight lunches of Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, fruit and milk into their car to begin their route. The retired Castalia residents said they aren't deterred by the rising fuel prices and write off their fuel costs as a donation.
"We don't have to go very far on our route -- it usually takes us less than an hour," Candi Groh said. "And the seniors really appreciate it, so it's kind of rewarding for us."
Program directors in Huron, Sandusky and Ottawa counties say they, too, are feeling the effects of increased costs and fewer volunteers.
"With the gas prices right now and surcharges being added to our deliveries, we've budgeted as much as we could -- but we are seeing an increase in the number of requests," Huron County Meals on Wheels director Lucinda Smith said. The agency, which averages 270 meals each day, is projected to serve 67,000 meals this year -- approximately 7,000 more than last year.
"Our trucks put on between 60 and 100 miles per day, so I'm sure as gas goes up, we'll feel more of an impact," Smith said.
Sandusky County Senior Programs director Robin Richter said a 2006 levy should cover the program's projected costs until 2010 -- but after that, they'll likely need to look to other funding sources. In January, staff members hired professionals to analyze their menus and offer ways in which they could provide the same nutritional content for less. They've also considered delivering three frozen meals per week to rural residents to allow drivers to make fewer trips.
"We're definitely feeling the squeeze," Richter said. "Our transportation costs went up by 26 percent from 2006 to 2007 and increased another 21 percent from 2007 to this year ... and on meals, our costs went up 28 percent from 2006 to 2008."
To offset costs, Richter said they have eliminated some volunteer training programs and attempted to do more networking locally, rather than through national groups.
Wayne Toczek, CEO of Innovations Services, which contracts with Ottawa County to provide food for the Meals on Wheels program, said he saw a more than 25 percent price increase on certain items -- including grain and dairy products.
"It's killing everyone," he said. "The only thing we can do is try to keep avoiding waste by not over-portioning."
The company negotiates a competitive bid with its agencies annually, and once the contract is established they cannot raise their prices to compensate for unexpected cost increases. But they're already considering raising next year's rate, Toczek said.
Meal programs throughout the nation are feeling the effects.
"We have more than 700 member agencies, and four out of 10 of our programs now have waiting lists -- which means more seniors are going hungry while they're waiting for a meal," National Meals on Wheels Association spokeswoman Marley Sweeney said.
The meals allow more seniors to remain at their homes for longer and offer an inexpensive alternative to nursing homes, which average $60,000 a year.
For Sandusky resident Jane Baker, 83, they are a welcomed convenience as she recovers from shoulder surgery and prepares for an upcoming knee replacement.
"I can't cook anymore with my shoulder, so the meals really help," she said. "It's a pretty good meal at a good price."