The Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island assistance program for the state’s elderly residents hit another milestone Wednesday — serving its 17 millionth meal to Clara Ramos, 80, of Providence.
The highlight meal, this year served by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, is one of a long list of such events marking the work put in by the organization’s volunteers since the 1970s. That work has not only helped elderly residents maintain their nutritional health but also their independence and ability to remain at home.
The late Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy delivered the program’s 1 millionth meal to a senior way back in 1979, according to Marlene LeRoy, Meals on Wheels development director. Gov. Lincoln Almond delivered the 7 millionth meal in 1995, she noted, and Gov. Donald Carcieri the 12 millionth meal, the 13 millionth meal and 14 millionth meal during his terms of office, she said.
The program serves elderly meal sites around the state on a daily basis and is the only home-delivered elderly meal program operating in the state, according to LeRoy.
Meals on Wheels is funded almost entirely through the generosity of businesses, service organizations and individuals and counts on its regular volunteers to get meals to its eligible clients.
The organization served 360,299 meals to 2,650 Rhode Island elderly residents last year at an average cost of $6.07 per meal, LeRoy said.
The organization keeps track of such details so that it is able to track how many residents it helps in each city or town in the state and uses that information to order food and schedule preparation and delivery of meals.
That information shows Woonsocket to be among the most assisted communities on the program’s routes, both through home deliveries and through attendance at its popular senior meal sites. A total of 23,237 meals were served in Woonsocket last year at a cost of $36,000 to the program, she noted.
Central Falls residents were beneficiaries of 4,836 meals from the program last year at a cost of $7,428, and Pawtucket’s elderly recipients of $33,513 meals at a cost of $42,400, she said. Providence, by comparison, saw 58,616 meals served to its elderly residents at a cost of $118,000, LeRoy said.
The program could not do its work without the help of its approximate 200 volunteers who for the most part show up in their own vehicles to pick up a pack meals for distribution along their assigned routes. The program also pays drivers of larger vehicles to make deliveries to regular meals sites or special delivery routes, she noted.
The donors, who see all of their support contributions go to the Rhode Island operation, make the system work, she said. This year CVS Caremark has been helping the organization to get the word out about its needs as has the Webster Bank.
“It’s the first time we have had major corporations come into help us,” LeRoy noted.
With seniors making up 14.7 percent of the state’s population, the need for Meals on Wheels is not likely to diminish from its ever growing role of support, according to LeRoy.
The program also takes steps to meet special needs such as providing someone with a blanket if they need one or even an air conditioner during the summer if that can be arranged, she said.
The personal contact Meals on Wheels volunteers maintain with their elderly clients is one of the most important benefits the program offers beyond the food and nutrition it provides.
“When they deliver a meal, they are trained to make sure they see the person and talk to the person on their list,” she said. “They assess the person and make sure everything is ok with them. We go every day and sometimes we are the only person that sees them on a regular basis,” she said.
Clara Ramos was a person who volunteered to help people for years at a soup kitchen before ever seeking assistance herself, according to LeRoy.
When she had a chance to meet Ramos herself, LeRoy said she told her “you helped take care of all those people for all those years and now we get to help you.”
There may be other seniors out there in need of such help and LeRoy said Meals on Wheels does have a waiting list to add such clients given its funding limitations.
For more information on how to help Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island visit www.rimeals.org  or call 401-351-6700.