Society

Demand for Meals on Wheels—and the drivers who make it possible—is soaring

The pandemic made these low-profile food delivery agencies into essential services. Now they're entering their busiest season.

Low-cost meal delivery services have become fundamental components of communities across the country, mostly by way of local Meals on Wheels agencies. Hundreds of thousands of adults in Canada—from seniors and their care workers to people with disabilities—count on the affordable and nutritious meals the services deliver. Many also look to the volunteers for companionship. 

Independently-run agencies that prepare and deliver meals exist in almost every province, running primarily on irregular donations and government funding. In Ontario, 74 of the province’s Meals on Wheels providers are members of the Ontario Community Support Association, which helps them with advocacy work and government relations. Without the association, the individual providers “wouldn’t have a voice with the provincial government”, said the association’s CEO Deborah Simon. 

As Meals on Wheels providers rev up for their busiest winter season to date, Nathan Sing spoke to Simon and Shannan Ketchabaw, the executive director of Meals on Wheels provider Sudbury Meals, on the staggering demand for low-barrier food delivery services and why nutritious food should be treated as preventative health care.


As we recover from a rocky start to this decade, has the number of people you deliver food to increased at a rate where you’re struggling to keep up? 

Shannon Ketchabaw: One hundred per cent. I used to add 10 new clients monthly, but now I’m averaging around 30 every month. When I started at this agency in June 2019, we were producing 80 to 130 meals a day. Now on a low day, we are providing 180. 

Deborah Simon: To translate that across the whole province, the number of Meals on Wheels clients in Ontario has increased 60 per cent from the previous year. It’s one of the most in-demand programs now in communities across the province.

What’s behind the surging demand?  

Simon: Many seniors were deconditioned as a result of being isolated in their homes, so the number of high-functioning seniors who might have been doing more outside of their own homes has decreased tremendously. Because of this, programs like Meals on Wheels have become essential to seniors that no longer have the same stamina, or the same abilities—cognitive or physical—prior to having been isolated that long. 

Have any Meals on Wheels providers had to turn away new clients? 

Simon: That is already a challenge for many providers I’ve spoken to because of the increasing costs for everything, the inability to fundraise, and how hard it is to find volunteers. All of those factors contribute to more operating costs for Meals on Wheels, and the biggest problem faced right now is the ability to accept new clients and then having to create a waitlist for clients. I believe some provinces get zero funding for Meals on Wheels, and the providers have to fundraise for all the costs.

Ketchabaw: Lack of funding could certainly impact the number of meals Sudbury Meals produces in a day, since skimping on the quality of meals is never an option for me. We work with a dietitian and do our very best to accommodate special requests and needs. So while I would hate to put a waitlist in place, that could be an option if I can’t produce enough meals to meet demand. 

Most of the individuals that Meals on Wheels agencies deliver to are seniors who are eligible for financial benefits. What does the growing demand for low-cost meal delivery services say about the adequacy of these benefits?

Simon: Despite the supports that are available, there are many seniors who are barely crossing the poverty line. The staggering number of people who are dependent on meal delivery services is really indicative of what’s going on with our seniors. These programs themselves are also struggling financially right now. We’re just not seeing an increase in funding and volunteers to keep up with demand.

Ketchabaw: Money needs to go into the hospital sector and the long-term care sector, but the community support sector keeps people out of hospitals and Meals on Wheels is a small cog in that wheel. By providing a nutritious hot or frozen meal up to seven days a week, we are preventing people from becoming malnourished, and therefore preventing someone from having a fracture because they are weak, or not thinking straight due to not getting the nutrients that they need. 

Nutritious food is considered a commodity around the world. Is it time we treat food as preventative health care?

Ketchabaw: It’s way past time. Adults that are food insecure are suffering at home by not being nourished correctly. Without the proper nutrition, things are going to happen to you. And for an average hospital stay of five to seven days at the Health Sciences North hospital in Sudbury in 2020, a CIHI report indicated that would cost over $5,000. To have nutritious meals from us seven days a week for an entire year costs about $3,000, without subsidies. 

Simon: We also just don’t have as many nuclear families anymore like we used to. Care of the elderly, in some cases, has been relegated away as family members are not with their ageing parents. The days where a family wrapped around their seniors within their own homes and ensured that seniors got the nutrition they need has practically disappeared in many urban areas. The changing society has made many community support programs so critically important.

Have you brought on board enough volunteers for Sudbury Meals to keep up with the increasing demand? 

Ketchabew: As we’ve grown, it’s been a struggle to find volunteers. At the beginning of the pandemic, I lost 15 volunteers within two days, which was understandable because some were over 70 years old. When nobody was working during the pandemic, people were coming out in droves. But many of them now have full-time commitments so they’re not able to give the time anymore, even though we are serving more people. I don’t know one Meals on Wheels agency that isn’t challenged with bringing on volunteers.

Shannon, can you walk me through a day of volunteering with Sudbury Meals? 

Ketchabew: A volunteer comes to the agency, picks up a cooler of meals and, once they get to each client’s home, organizes the meals in reusable bags. When the volunteer walks that bag to the client’s doorstep, there is a very good chance that the client has not seen someone that day yet, so they will do a quick wellness check. An average route is completed in an hour and a half. You can’t have people driving for two or three hours or else that food is not going to be at the right temperature anymore. 

What are the requisite requirements to become a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels? 

Ketchabew: Anyone can go to our website, fill out the application, and then go through the interview process to become a volunteer. Volunteers need to have a criminal reference check and a vulnerable sector check because they will be going into people’s homes. They need to have a reliable vehicle, a clean driving record, show proof of insurance for their vehicle and let their insurance company know that they are volunteering with us. Driving and providing meals should not impact your insurance, and OCSA has helped advocate for that.

Simon: The same process applies to other agencies across Ontario. If anyone in Canada wants to get involved, most major cities have a list of social services that state where the local Meals on Wheels providers are in the area. For those living in Ontario, the OCSA website links to a website that finds the nearest Meals on Wheels Ontario agency by postal code. 

As we brace for the aftershocks of the pandemic, many are looking for ways to help those most affected. How valuable is it for people to take a few hours a week to deliver meals to people in their community, compared to just donating? 

Ketchabaw: There is nothing more gratifying than the look on somebody’s face as you’re providing them with a hot, nutritious meal. Our clients are individuals who are just not able to do the things that they once did, and now have no choice but to rely on others for something as basic as food. Many of these clients were volunteers for us in the past. Some clients can’t even stand at a kitchen stove. There’s nothing harder than realizing that you can’t drive for yourself anymore or provide yourself with basic essentials.

If you wish to volunteer or donate, Meals on Wheels providers can be found through these sites in B.C.; Alberta; Saskatchewan; Manitoba; Ontario; Quebec; New Brunswick; Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.


Nathan Sing writes about food security and hunger issues in Canada. This holiday season, he is reporting on innovative initiatives that address the roots of  food insecurity, with emphasis on how average Canadians can help.

Sing’s one-year position at Maclean’s is funded by the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security, in partnership with Community Food Centres Canada. Email tips and suggestions to nathan.sing@macleans.ca.