Volunteers deliver meals. Credit: Needham Public Health

For more than 50 years, Needham’s Traveling Meals program has provided healthy lunches and dinners to residents in need. This past January, due to high costs and sourcing issues, this program was in peril. 

Operated with key support from Beth Israel Deaconess (BID Needham), the program predates the national Meals on Wheels and dates back to when the hospital was known as Glover Memorial and operated by the town. In January, BID informed the town that, due to challenges that made it difficult for its kitchen to keep up with the hospital’s own meal needs, it might have to stop preparing low-cost, high-nutrition lunches and dinners for about 50 town residents five days a week.

“The hospital keeps expanding,” said Timothy McDonald, Needham’s director of health and human services. “But every time they expand, their kitchen doesn’t expand.”

McDonald requested and was granted an additional $40,000 from the town to cover the much higher costs that a different vendor would charge, but then the hospital recommitted to providing the service for another two years. This has given the health and human services department some breathing room to find a replacement vendor that maintains the standards provided by BID Needham. 

“It is unlikely we will have to tap into that source of funding,” McDonald said.

Still, over time — due to  a very tight labor supply and massive hospital growth — other sources for the meals will eventually need to be found, said McDonald. 

“The hospital is ideal because they know how to prepare meals for people with dietary restrictions,” said McDonald, “Often we have people who are on low-sodium diets. Some people need to have their food blended.” 

BID prepares meals for delivery. Credit: Needham Public Health

BID Needham provides fresh meals, customized to meet the needs of individuals. Other vendors sell frozen meals at a much higher price.

Unlike the federal program, Needham’s program has no age or income limitations. Most of the recipients are senior citizens. “Once every 10 years or so we will get a 45-year-old who just had knee surgery and has no support network,” said McDonald.

Recipients receive lunch and dinner five days a week. Delivered together, lunch is a hot, supper-style meal and dinner is designed to be eaten cold. The two daily meals cost $6, about 25 cents above the cost charged by BID, and are either paid for by the residents themselves, funded by the state, or covered by The Friends of the Board of Health and Traveling Meals.

Rebecca Hall, the Traveling Meals coordinator, said her clients have mental limitations or physical limitations that prohibit them from either preparing or going out to get their own meals.

During the school year, the program relies on about 40 volunteer drivers. In summer when many of the volunteers leave town, the program hires college students.

Volunteers drive one or two days a week and are assigned a specific route. Hall said she makes it clear to the clients that the volunteer is not there to do chores. 

“We try not to go into people’s homes, but if they want us to we will come in and chat with them,” she said. “Some of our clients are in split level homes and they can’t make it down that first level of stairs, so we do go in and put the food in the kitchen.”

Traveling Meals volunteers. Credit: Needham Public Health

Tom Leiby, 73, has been delivering meals through the program for 15 years. “Sometimes we’re the only people that these elderly people get to talk to during the day,” he said.

Both Hall and Leiby said that strong relationships form between volunteer and client. One of the recipients on Leiby’s route turned 100 last year, and he delivered presents along with lunch and dinner.

“We do two things when we deliver the meals,” Leiby said. “We give them the meal and we check on them to make sure they’re OK.”

These conversations also serve as an opportunity to observe mental or physical changes. Any concerns are reported back to Hall, who calls the client’s contacts or 911 when necessary.

If you are interested in volunteering to deliver these meals or need this assistance, you can reach out to Rebecca Hall, the Traveling Meals coordinator at 781-455-7949 ext. 219.

Needham resident Bob Baker is a retired educator and curriculum writer.

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