Photo: Kelsey Tsipis

The food-at-home program runs largely on volunteers who pay for their own gas. But as fuel prices rise, volunteers feel the pinch.

By Kelsey Tsipis

As gas nears the four dollar mark, organizations across the state such as Meals on Wheels are worried the increasing price of fuel will drive away the volunteers they depend on.

Meals ready to be delivered by Chapel Hill and Carrboro Meals on Wheels volunteers.
Meals ready to be delivered by Chapel Hill and Carrboro Meals on Wheels volunteers.

So far, many programs are holding on by tweaking how they do things. But many, especially in rural counties, struggle with increased demand for meals at the same time volunteers are pulling back because of hard economic times.

Alan Winstead, the Executive Director of Meals on Wheels Wake County, said two summers ago when gas prices neared four dollars a gallon, the program lost several of their volunteer drivers.

“Over the last four years, the point when we see a change in the way that volunteers give their time, and the frequency in which they drive is when gas is over four dollars,” said Winstead. “We did see volunteers reduce the amount of time they came dramatically. They were only coming monthly, instead of weekly.”

The Wake County Meals on Wheels program, like many in the state, relies on volunteer drivers to pay for their own gas. The volunteers work five days a week to deliver over 900 meals a day to elderly people around Wake County.

“When we lose volunteers that means we have to find additional volunteers during tough financial time for people,” said Winstead. “It’s definitely been harder to attract recruits and retain volunteers when gas prices are higher.”

According to AAA Carolinas data on weekly average gas prices, gas prices in North Carolina have steadily increased over the last two years. In June of 2010, the average price of a gallon of unleaded gasoline was $2.6451. This week the average was $3.4623.

Organizations like the Wake County Meals on Wheels are funded both by state and federal dollars alongside community support. While Winstead says they have not had to reduce the amount of meals delivered due to gas prices rising, he does worry as the demand for such meals increases.

Rural programs struggle

Other counties across the state are already having to make adjustments to their home delivery services to cope with cuts in funding, and high gas prices. Many rural county programs have seen an increased demand for services alongside the increase in costs to fund them.

Volunteers meet at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill daily to deliver meals around Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Volunteers meet at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill daily to deliver meals around Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Many programs have set up drop off sites around their counties to reduce driving required of volunteers.

Terry Bowman, the Development Director of Asheville and Buncombe County Meals on Wheels said their program doesn’t have the resources it needs to expand and is struggling to compensate for the increase in costs.

“We’ve definitely felt an impact with the rise in gas prices,” said Bowman. “We have lost some volunteers. Some folks just can’t afford to help.”

To help compensate for the loss of volunteers, the program established neighborhood drop off points across the 600 square miles of Buncombe County. Volunteer drivers don’t have to drive more than 20 miles to pick up meals.

However, the program is still seeing fewer volunteers willing to drive the long, outlying routes.

“We have to deliver frozen meals because we don’t have enough people getting out there to keep the food hot,” said Bowman. “That happens in more remote locations. Some of those routes are more than 40 miles to drive.”

The Asheville and Buncombe County Meals on Wheels currently has 350 volunteers that they have tried to keep incentivized with monthly raffles for gas cards. Still, the organization is constantly working to find more so they can expand from their 37 routes across the county.

“Usually Meals on Wheels volunteers are very dedicated,” said Bowman. “They meet one-on-one with the person, and realize that it’s a lot more than a meal to most people.”

Janet Grainge, Director of Senior Services for Carteret County, said the volunteers for their Home Delivered Meals service have proven dedicated as well. However, she is seeing a dramatic increase in demand for the service.

A typical meal delivered by the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Meals on Wheels program includes a meat, vegetable, bread and milk.
A typical meal delivered by the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Meals on Wheels program includes a meat, a vegetable, bread and milk.

“We have heard concern that if it goes higher than $4 they would have to pull back on their time,” said Grainge.

Currently, 43 counties in North Carolina have more 60-year-olds than children under 17. By 2025, that number is expected to rise to 85 counties.

Mary Bethel, an AARP-NC representative, said funding for meal delivery services is vital, especially as the number of elderly citizens across the state in need of such assistance increases.

“All these programs use volunteers, but most are older individuals on fixed incomes that are really impacted by the rise in gas prices,” said Bethel. “The problem will become if they can continue the level of service, and continue to expand with the needs of their citizens.

Bethel personally felt the strains these organizations bear when her mother needed home delivery meals but it was eight miles outside the limit for Bertie County services.

“It does affect families,” said Bethel. “We’re looking at increased demand for service that already don’t have the resources to expand, so when the price of gas goes up how do you compensate?”

Main photo shows Don Reinfurt, a Meals on Wheels volunteer, before he delivers meals around Chapel Hill and Carrboro.  All photos by Kelsey Tsipis

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...