Delivering Meals on Wheels with an 85-year-old sparkplug

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Mr. Bernstein lived alone in a dark, little apartment in Philadelphia, and often Loretta Katz was the only person he’d see all week.

Katz, who is 85, loads frozen meals into her sedan once a week and speeds all around Northeast Philly, delivering food and conversation to elderly shut-ins like Bernstein.  People are hungry and she helps feed them – proof enough, she says, that the recently-maligned Meals on Wheels program works.

She is a salve for lonely hearts, a companion for 10 minutes, two ears ready to hear all the things people keep inside when there’s no one listen.

“They will talk about anything,” she said Wednesday morning while whipping her Mitsubishi through traffic. “They want some companionship.”

Food can bring joy too, Katz said, and she thought of Mr. Bernstein and his craving for bananas.

“He kept saying he hadn’t had a banana in a long time and it’s all he could think about,” she said. “I brought him one, and you would have thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever eaten. He was so happy. He died a few months after that.”

Katz volunteers with KleinLife in Northeast Philly, one of the thousands of non-profits that run some form of Meals on Wheels program that serves millions of hungry people in the United States. Last month, the program became the poster child for the drastic cuts that could result from President Donald J. Trump’s lean budget proposal.

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, said a program like Meals on Wheels “sounds great” but “doesn’t work,” leaving everyone involved in local programs confused and a bit worried.

“I can guarantee you there are 6,000 people in Philadelphia receiving meals on wheels and without it they would starve,” said Holly Lange, CEO of the Philadelphia Corporation for the Aging.  “They have no one to help them, they cannot afford to starve.”

After his comments, Mulvaney said the stories written about Meals on Wheels were “grossly wrong or nearly grossly wrong.”

Most Meals on Wheels programs are funded through a combination of local, state and federal money, along with private donations. According to the nonprofit organization’s national office, its 5,000 community-run programs receive 35% of funds from the government. Officials there said that number has been wildly misreported since Mulvaney’s comments.

That funding comes from the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program, which falls under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Trump’s budget proposed a 17.9% cut HHS, hence the concerns.

Philadelphia’s aging corporation, with a full-time staff of drivers, packers, and utility worker, receives 80 percent of its money from the state and 20 percent from federal funding. Given that a Drexel University study shows that Philadelphia has one of the largest elderly populations in the country, the need for home-delivered meals could only increase.

Allen Glicksman, PCA’s director of research and evaluation, said the city is home to 260,000 people over the age of 60 and that 18 percent of them have incomes below the poverty level. Glicksman said the number of “functionally poor” senior citizens is much higher. The organization’s surveys have found that many skip meals, have trouble shopping, and have little access to healthy foods.

Patricia Hughes, 77, of West Oak Lane, has received meals through PCA since 2012, when she underwent surgery. Last year, she broke her wrist in a fall in her kitchen, which made cooking difficult.

“It’s so convenient,” she said. “I can’t cook.”

Hughes worked as a nurse for decades. She loved the job.  She lost her husband, Albert Hughes Jr., to cancer. Their son, Tommy, died of leukemia at the age of 8 in 1982.

Her son, Albert III, takes her shopping for cereal sometimes.

“He worries about me,” she said.  “He doesn’t want me driving but I still try to drive to church. I like to get out.”

Teresa Osborne, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Aging, said the socialization aspect of meal deliveries isn’t just a talking point.

“As one who began [her] career as a case manager for our local Meals on Wheels program, I have seen first-hand, that the program is more than a meal,” Osborne said in an e-mail.  “It is a friendly visit and often a safety check, that helps us to address three of the biggest threats to aging: hunger, isolation, and loss of independence. “

Katz has been volunteering at KleinLife for close to 36 years, continuing a tradition of delivering meals that began, in America at least, in Philadelphia more than a half-century ago.

Margaret Toy often balked at being dubbed the “founder” of Meals on Wheels when interviewed by reporters. Still, when she piled into a car in Kensington with hot food one January morning in 1954, Toy and fellow volunteers delivered the first meals on wheels in America. The program spread.

“No matter how it snowed, we never missed a meal,” Toy, who died in 1989, told the Inquirer seven years before.

On Wednesday, Katz took Roosevelt Boulevard to a small apartment complex on Welsh Road, where Elizabeth Bleiman was waiting in a bright red robe for her Passover meals, seemingly overjoyed at having so many visitors.

“I’m only 94,” Bleiman said, before she burst into laughter.

In the kitchen, Katz unloaded the holiday meals and they swapped stories about ailments. One delivery driver had gout recently. Bleiman has bad hands, she said.

“If we have our health,” Katz replied, “we have everything, right?”

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