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Gas prices haven't slowed down Meals on Wheels

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 13, 2011 - For some branches of the nationwide Meals on Wheels programs, significant increases in gas prices have made keeping volunteers a challenge. But, so far, this problem has not affected St. Louis as significantly as other places.

Meals on Wheels Association of America, which delivers meals to senior citizens unable to leave their homes, relies primarily on volunteers to provide its services.

"We suffered in a couple ways," said David Sykora of the St. Louis Area Agency on Aging. "We have volunteers (for Meals on Wheels) who have dropped out of the program because they couldn't afford it. We've had a hard time recruiting volunteers."

Sykora said some of the St. Louis-area Meals on Wheels programs have reported that their volunteer staffs want stipend increases to cover increased transportation costs. However, only two of the 10 locations have reported actually losing volunteers.

According to the MOWAA website, the average price of gas nationwide is $3.96; Missouri's statewide average is $3.90. The average MOWAA volunteer drives 20 miles each day he or she works. An average program covers approximately 500 total miles per day.

According to MOWAA site statistics, gas costs have been steadily increasing since September 2010, affecting the feasibility of community members volunteering their transportation services.

Meals on Wheels has volunteers that are unpaid, paid stipends as well as paid staff members. Sykora said some paid staff members in select areas have been delivering meals since they could not get volunteers to pick up the work.

Meals on Wheels has a caterer that provides the organization's branches with 2,000 meals a day to deliver, Sykora said. The increase in gas prices has caused problems for catering prices as well since they also need more money to cover transportation costs, he said.

"It affects us like it does every other organization that relies on volunteers," Sykora said. "It's not enough for us to panic."

Jackie Zeitinger, board member for the Meals on Wheels program of greater St. Louis, said its volunteers are usually from churches, other community service affiliations or just community members who want to volunteer.

She said the program does not see an increase in volunteers in the summer because most of them work year-round, though some teachers work with the organization during holidays or summer months.

Allison Prang, a student at the University of Missouri Columbia, is a Beacon intern.

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