Meals on Wheels facing 'a critical shortage' of volunteers with need poised to increase

Volunteer Toronto, which links non-profit groups and volunteers, says Meals on Wheels in Toronto is facing a "critical shortage" of volunteers for the food service program.

Volunteers involved for decades may now be at an age to need the service themselves, one organization says

At Dixon Hall, which handles 150 clients a day, coordinator Heather Johnson said volunteers don't make long term commitments anymore. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

A city-wide food program that brings daily meals to shut-ins, the elderly and the sick is struggling as it faces a shortage of volunteers. 

According to a new research report, the number of people willing to help has drastically dropped possibly putting the social service Meals on Wheels in jeopardy.

Volunteer Toronto identified the program as a priority for research when it started making anecdotal correlations.

Melina Condren, the group's director of non-profit services, said she collected information through its database, surveys and interviews with 17 groups that deliver Meals on Wheels.

'A critical shortage'

When Condren looked at the data she came to a startling conclusion.

"There's quite a critical shortage of volunteers in these programs," she added the results were "actually quite striking."

Condren said Volunteer Toronto has 483 non-profit organizations subscribed to its service but she noticed an issue with groups that offer the food social service program.

"A lot of Meals on Wheels programs were recruiting volunteers almost constantly. So we knew that there was an issue with these programs not getting the volunteers they needed," Condren said.
According to a new research report, the number of people willing to help has drastically dropped possibly putting the social service Meals on Wheels in jeopardy. (Stephanie Matteis)

At Sprint Senior Care, volunteer coordinator Ashika Iqbal posts volunteer opportunities to deliver meals.

"If it was this time last year if I posted, a week ago I might have five people who are interested. I actually posted about a week ago and I have zero. So it's not great," she said.

Volunteering includes picking up meals and then delivering to clients who live in the group's catchment area. It takes a couple of volunteer hours a day but many volunteers, Iqbal explained.

She's not sure why the numbers have declined.

"It's really hard to say. Driving in Toronto is not easy," and she added that the service runs every day of the year which is also a challenge in terms of volunteer commitment.

"I don't really know what's happening. Maybe there's not enough of a profile for Meals on Wheels. Maybe we're not reaching people," Iqbal said.

'Constantly recruiting'

At Dixon Hall, which handles 150 clients a day, coordinator Heather Johnson said volunteers don't make long term commitments anymore.

"It does mean we're constantly recruiting," she said.
Eileen McGeean is an employee at Meals On Wheels. She has been working in the business for 22 years and says one factor in the drop in volunteer numbers is that people's availability is scarce during the week. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/ CBC)

Johnson trains new recruits three times a month and sees about 80-90 people a month who want to get involved.

She said most of them only want to get involved short term, often only for a month at a time. "Previously, people may have been here six months to a year," she said.

CBC News contacted non-profits requesting volunteers through Volunteer Toronto. According to the services, the number of Meals on Wheels delivered last year are:

  • Circle of Care - 178,803 meals
  • West Neighbourhood House - 73,409
  • Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services - 72,000
  • SPRINT Senior Care - 36,000
  • Red Cross Toronto Region - 50,000
  • Bernard Betal Centre - 26,000
  • Better Living Health and Community Services - 26,000
  • Transcare Community Support Services, Scarborough - 90,000 meals

Sylvia Bergmann,  Transcare Community Support Services said there has been a "steady decline" in volunteers.

Danielle Benton, a volunteer developer at West Neighbourhood House, said volunteers who had been involved for decades may now be at an age to need the service themselves.

"We are seeing less young retirees getting involved," Benton said.

Condren said she sees the problem as only getting worse as the number of seniors outnumber children in Toronto. And many of those seniors want to remain at home with assisted living like a meal program.

She agreed it's a challenge to find drivers, especially those who can commit to ongoing weekday morning deliveries.

Many of the organizations said they have a core group of long-term, dedicated volunteers that are retiring.

About the Author

Stephanie Matteis

Stephanie Matteis is a senior reporter with CBC News, filing stories for television, radio & online. She's a pathological truthteller and storytelling junkie whose work appears on CBC Toronto, The National and Marketplace. Contact Stephanie: stephanie.matteis@cbc.ca and @CBCsteph on Twitter.