KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON -- Only about 7 percent of the people who could benefit from Meals on Wheels use the program, according to the non-profit's director.
Susan Fox, executive director of Bennington Meals on Wheels, said this year her group has served 44,000 meals and wants to reach more people. Meanwhile Southwestern Vermont Medical Center would like to reduce its number of "readmissions."
Both organizations believe they can help each other by using a $20,000 grant from the Community Foundation's Innovations and Collaborations Program.
Fox said the grant will pay for seniors 60 and over to get Meals on Wheels dinners. The hospital and local medical providers will recommend to certain patients they take Meals on Wheels coupons, which are good for 10 meals.
According to Fox, Meals on Wheels is free but a suggested donation is $3.75. She said the average donation is about $1. The goal of this coupon offer is to get more people who are eligible to use the program. After the coupons are used up, those who received them can keep on getting the meals if they want, begin donating, or stop altogether.
Fox said the meals are nutritious and appropriate for those who have heart problems or diabetes. She said the group keeps a list of individual dietary restrictions but there is a limit as to how specific they can be.
SVMC spokesman Kevin Robinson said a readmission occurs when a person is discharged from the hospital and is readmitted within the next 30 days. He said many factors affect whether or not a person will come back within that time. They include communication between patient and doctor, a support network for the patient, and the patient following directions.
Another component may be proper nutrition, which the Meals on Wheels program can help with. Robinson said the hospital does not expect this will have a large impact on its readmission rate but still feels it is important to promote healthy eating.
"Seniors in Bennington County face tremendous challenges when it comes to eating healthy meals," said Fox. "Only a few corner stores have healthy affordable foods, and getting to a grocery store usually requires a car. That's hard for seniors who don't drive or have other mobility problems. In addition, many seniors don't understand that help is available, both in getting quality food, and in understanding that good food is a key to good health."
Fox said some view Meals on Wheels as an entitlement program when it is not. She said people can pay as much or as little as they want for the meals, 75 percent of which are delivered while the rest are served at the Meals on Wheels Bennington Café which is on Pleasant Street. There is another site in Manchester at the Town Hall. Fox said the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging, which contracts services from Meals on Wheels, determines eligibility for home delivery.
The program would add 100 new recipients to those Meals on Wheels is delivering to now.