Meals on Wheels delivers food, companionship in the face of growing demand

Once a week, 2,200 housebound seniors in Las Vegas who receive food from the Catholic Charities Meals on Wheels program gets a visit by the same driver who not only delivers their food but also checks on their well-being.

Deacon Thomas Roberts, who has been working to administer the program for seven years as the president and CEO of Catholic Charities, works tirelessly to ensure that when the week’s allotment of seven frozen meals, fresh fruit, and fresh milk is brought to each house, a relationship is also developing. Once the food is placed in the freezer, the delivery driver takes a moment to look at the contents of the fridge to make sure that last week’s order has been eaten and that there is no rotten food.

Roberts said that the cost of each meal had risen in the last few years and that providers needed to become more efficient. After spending 27 years in the hotel and casino industry, Roberts is no stranger to cost-effective management and said he is grateful to be able to do this type of work. 

“People who donate their money should know that 89 cents of every dollar go directly to client services for Nevada seniors,” Roberts told The Nevada Independent.

The food, which has evolved along with the organization, is prepared in a large production kitchen with the goal of keeping quality high and the costs low. Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, which has run a Meals on Wheels program since 1975 and is one of several providers in the state, receives $3.65 in state funding for each meal.

The actual cost of each prepared meal is closer to $7. The group needs to raise about $2 million a year to cover the cost of food production and distribution, which they try to secure through grants and donations.

Federal aid for the national Meals on Wheels program also helps; it totals more than half a billion dollars and flows to more than 5,000 organizations nationwide that run local Meals on Wheels programs.  

Nevada lawmakers have also been sympathetic to the cause, voting in the last two sessions to raise the level of state funding to reimburse Meals on Wheels providers from $2.65 per meal before the 2017 session to $3.65 after the 2019 session.

Roberts said he advocates directly with lawmakers to increase the funding, making the case that it’s a prudent financial investment. The annual cost of Meals on Wheels per senior is less than $3,000 whereas the average cost of assisted living for one person is about $39,000.

Roberts said one of the reasons many seniors move into assisted living is because they can no longer cook for themselves. Bringing them food helps clients live independently for longer instead of having the decision made for them because they are unable to feed themselves.

Roberts said that with the population of Nevada growing, especially in Clark County, many people will choose to retire in Las Vegas and add to the demand for programs such as Meals on Wheels. 

But the need is here now: A 2015 gap analysis administered by the governor's office said 14.8 percent of Nevada seniors live in poverty. Currently, there are more than 200 people on Catholic Charities’ waiting list.

Meals on Wheels isn’t the only effort the charity is making to feed the hungry. It’s one of 16 programs the group manages, including a food pantry, immigration services, and an emergency shelter for those without a place to sleep.  

Ahead of Thanksgiving, Catholic Charities has been working with the community to provide close to 4,000 turkeys and all the fixings to families in need. Roberts wants as many families as possible to have a traditional Thanksgiving if they otherwise are not able to have one.