Meals on Wheels Winnipeg struggling with high costs for food, fuel

Volunteers Albert Toews and June Thomson pull up to a house in Winnipeg, pop the trunk of their van, and haul out two bags of hot food.

“Hi, Effie! How are you today?” Toews asks as he walks to the door and hands a lunch to the senior who lives there.

Every day, Meals on Wheels volunteers like Toews and Thomson deliver 350-500 meals across Winnipeg.

“We have a whole host of people here in Winnipeg that need assistance and need help. And we aren’t able to do all of it,” Toews says.

“It’s heart-wrenching.”

Clients Theresa and Edward Koska get lunches delivered four times a week.

“I love my Meals on Wheels and I love the fellas that bring them,” she laughs.

As seniors, Theresa says it’s hard for them to get out for groceries and cook at home.

“I would have TV dinners, I guess. But they’re not good. They’ve got too much salt in them,” Koska says.

Clients of Meals and Wheels pay between $4 and $6 for each lunch. The meals are mostly subsidized by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and made in their kitchens.

Rhonda Gardner, executive director at Meals on Wheels, says until now, the charity hasn’t had to raise their prices. But serving sizes are getting smaller.

The last time they raised their prices by $1 in 2011, some clients had to cancel the service because they couldn’t afford it.

“Now it’s much worse,” she says. “Everybody’s struggling with the cost of living right now.”

Dozens unable to get meals in St. Vital

The rising price of food means the charity has also been unable to provide meals to dozens of clients in the St. Vital neighbourhood for nearly a year and a half.

Along with the health authority, the charity also relies on other facilities to make low-priced meals.

In September 2020, St. Amant closed its kitchen. So Meals on Wheels had to cancel all five of its routes in the St. Vital neighbourhood.

“We had quite a few clients on employment income assistance. So their caseworkers call to see if there’s any chance that there’s going to be meal service delivery in St. Vital. I have to tell them no,” Gardner says.

The charity still can’t find a new kitchen in St. Vital willing to make the lunches at low cost. Gardner says she’s tried calling around to commercial food facilities in the area.

“They don’t even respond. So it’s very difficult and it’s very unfortunate,” she says.

It’s not just the price of food. Volunteers use their own vehicles to do deliveries. The charity just recently raised the honorarium to $7 a route, meant to help volunteers offset the costs of gas.

But with the rising price of fuel, Gardner says they’re worried they’ll lose volunteers when they’re already in need of help.

Volunteers Albert Toews and June Thomson head out to deliver lunch to Meals on Wheels clients. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC News)

For volunteers like Toews, the work isn’t just about dropping off lunches.

“We obviously deliver meals to people that are unable to get out and get them. And that’s a great service,” Toews says.

“But the fact that that we can stand at our clients’ door and just chat about what kind of day they’re having — I think that’s a critical part of what we do.”