Wellness on Wheels

"Over the last 19 years we have delivered or served three quarters of a million meals and have little awareness as to demographics, social, health or nutritional needs of our clients - until this spring." This statement was recently made by Susan P. Fox, the Executive Director for the Bennington County Meals Program, better known as Meals on Wheels.

The forum where Fox made the statement was at Marlboro College Graduate School's Nonprofit Management Leadership Master's Program, in May 2013, while presenting her Capstone Project to the faculty in Brattleboro.

Fox has had the title of Executive Director of the Bennington County MOW nonprofit since 2008 and prior to her present role had been, for five years, chairwoman of the organization's board and trustee. However, it was in 2012, when she was planning her Capstone Project that she realized that a rare opportunity had presented itself. In essence it would be a collaboration with the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation and the need to find out exactly who MOW was serving - annually, 50,000 meals.

MOW's involvement with the hospital was beneficial to both nonprofit organizations. The collaboration was also important to the seniors of Bennington County who represent about 25 percent of the population, the highest in Vermont, and is projected to grow to 35 percent by the year 2015.

SVMC has always been keen on how to better serve the health needs of its constituency, especially upon discharge from the hospital. It is a well known fact, that if recently discharged seniors could have well prepared and nutritious meals while at home, the likelihood of their needing to come back to the hospital could be greatly curtailed - thus a program was created in conjunction with MOW, whereby, discharged seniors were provided with 10 coupons to obtain free meals delivered or served by MOW.

At the same time, it was critical to find out exactly what were the demographic characteristics of the population being served- not only those who receive home delivered meals but the scores of individuals who frequented the program's five Bennington County congregate meal sites.

In the spring of 2013, a list of questions were provided to MOW's clients. The questions asked about their health conditions, if they lived alone, their age, how often did they have visitors, how much in the way of fruits and vegetables they consumed on a daily basis, and what chronic illnesses did they have and were they following their doctor's advice when it came to good eating habits. Another important question was what other daily meal, if any, did they have other than the one delivered by MOW or served at the congregate meal site? An astounding 83 percent responded to the survey and the data provided was a "watershed" of important information about the individuals MOW was serving. The data from the survey was also helpful to the hospital's medical personnel.

It was discovered that 67 percent of the respondents consumed only zero to three servings of fruits and vegetables per day - the suggested level is closer to seven. Furthermore, it was noted that 64 percent of those surveyed stated that "their doctors are not recommending changes in their diets." It was also noted that "most of the clients want to stay in their homes." For those who did receive their meals at home, 65 percent were over 80 years-old and it was important for them to meet and talk with the person who delivered their daily meal. Over 50 percent of those who chose to have their meal at a meal site were under 70 years-old and for them, the socialization factor was high on their list of what gave them satisfaction. On any given weekday it would not be unusual to see upwards of 35-45 young seniors enjoying a meal and socializing with their neighbors.

MOW is not a welfare program - instead it is a program to bring nutritious meals to the homebound and disabled who are over 60 years-old. There is no charge to the client, however, a donation of $3.25 is requested (the per meal cost is about $8). More revealing is the fact that a year's cost of meals is the equivalent of a 24 hour hospital stay.

Since February, when the joint program with SVMC commenced, 162 new clients were added to the MOW client base - and to date, 62 percent have continued receiving their daily meal from MOW. What is even more significant, no client who had been on the coupon program has had to be re-admitted to the hospital.

In years past, MOW may have been perceived as a welfare program. Based on the survey results, the hospital collaboration and the Café experience, it is really an organization bringing "Wellness on Wheels" to an ever increasing and treasured segment of Bennington County citizens. There are many deserving nonprofit organizations in Bennington County - WOW (MOW) ranks high among them.

Donald Keelan writes a bi-weekly and lives in Arlington.


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