MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The rising cost of food has forced many Americans to cut back at the dinner table. Rising gas prices certainly don't help. And together the two are taking an enormous toll on Meals on Wheels, the charity that delivers hot meals to low-income seniors.
Kate Archer Kent of Red River Radio reports that people living in rural areas could soon find themselves staring at an empty place setting.
KATE ARCHER KENT: Alfred Reeves(ph) drives two hours a day, several days a week, dropping off hot meals to elderly residents who need to eat.
Mr. ALFRED REEVES: We're going to be going to Elkhart...
KENT: One of his last stops in Elkhart is to 73-year-old Early Gibson(ph). Gibson is a former cattle hand who used to eat a lot of fried food, but now has become dependent on his free hot meals.
Mr. EARLY GIBSON: I don't eat no breakfast, and sometime I don't eat but once a day, but I likes beans and peas and mashed potatoes. I'm not too hot on greens.
KENT: Gibson's meal is one of 800 prepared each day by this east Texas Meals on Wheels program, but those entrees are becoming expensive. With food, fuel and labor costs, Gibson's meal, complete with a fruit cup and a carton of milk, costs more than $5. Executive director Lois Durant continues to cut costs, and she's worried.
Mr. LOIS DURANT (Executive Director, Meals on Wheels): We don't have the volunteers to begin with, but we just can't recruit them for sure now that we've got the cost of gas being a factor.
KENT: Hundreds of Meals on Wheels chapters across the country are losing volunteers, and gas prices have now forced the programs to stop serving meals to some seniors. Here are the Palestine, Texas Meals on Wheels Senior Center, Deborah Elliot scoops food into plastic containers.
Mr. DEBORAH ELLIOT (Meals on Wheels): Today, we're having pork cutlets with cornbread dressing and broccoli for it.
KENT: Fancier entrees like tilapia and roast beef are gone, and some clients who used to get a fresh, hot meal every day will soon get all their food delivered on one day - one hot meal and four frozen ones to last them the rest of the week. On weekends, they have to find their own food. Celia Haggart with the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities is not surprised Meals on Wheels is hurting because, she says, everyone is cutting back.
Ms. CELIA HAGGART (Center for Public Policy Priorities): You're going to see the people being able to give less. They're going to have less expendable resources to make donations.
KENT: Meals on Wheels executive director Lois Durant says frozen entrees will save on gas, but she worries about delivering meals just once a week.
Ms. DURANT: One of our drivers here in Palestine found a man that had just died in his chair. And I don't know how long it would have been before he'd been found if we didn't go there every day.
KENT: So as Durant struggles to keep her program going, she also plans to start calling seniors on days they don't see their driver. For NPR News, I'm Kate Archer Kent.
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