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When a meal becomes more than a meal

Scott Cameron, President/CEO

bassa Social Innovations

We have all experienced loss in social connection, and it is well documented that humans are designed to be social – to live in social groups, to work and play together, and to experience connections that bring us together with people like us (bonding social capital) and people that are different than we are (bridging social capital). Using outcome measures, a local program made a stark realization that the daily meals being delivered by volunteers to people isolated from community, while important, weren’t necessarily as important as the social connection being made on a daily basis.

The premise of Meals on Wheels programs operating across the country was founded on the identified need to ensure that people without the means to provide nutritious meals for themselves were able to secure a warm meal at least daily. From the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food is among the most basic of human needs – that is undeniable. From an organizational perspective, local Meals on Wheels programs were able to count the number of meals delivered, the number of volunteers engaged on an annual basis and the relatively low cost of each meal for the consumers. To program funders, this demonstration of use was sufficient to justify continued support. The belief that a hot meal was adequate to improve the likelihood of isolated people to remain in their home longer, and avoid costly and disruptive moves to higher levels of care, was widely held.

In a strategy to better understand the difference being made by funded programs, local Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) programs in Alberta were compelled to participate in the Making a Difference outcomes measurement initiative. For the local Meals on Wheels program, deeper investigation into the importance of daily meals and the program itself with participants, their family members and volunteers, revealed something important. Social connection emerged as the most significant finding.

The traditional Meals on Wheels program was based on the recruitment of volunteers to deliver a number of meals each day to participants in need. Clearly, these meals were delivered by courteous and generous people of higher means and capacity. In the local program, understanding the importance of social connection signaled a major change in the manner of delivery. For many participants in the program, the daily connection with a volunteer was the only consistent and positive social connection being made.

Today, volunteers deliver less meals per day, and make it a point to connect more deeply with each program participant. These volunteers, because of their daily interaction with meal recipients, are able to build thick trust, witness changes in overall wellness, and even perform small tasks that have the capacity to occupy idle minds. Health concerns are reported to the administrative team at Meals on Wheels so family members can be notified, many volunteers visit their program participants outside of lunchtime, and often friendships emerge between drivers and their clients. The nature and purpose of the program has changed over time – meals are still being delivered, but there’s so much more to the relationships that have developed.

This is a small example of the importance of measurement. While it doesn't signal a change to global hunger or isolation among seniors broadly, it does make a difference in the lives of the individuals, their families and the community within which the program operates. There is an underlying principle of accountability within this example that, if followed more broadly, could lead to improved allocation of resources and delivery of programs and services. We should all want to make a difference with our community investments.

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