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$2-a-gallon gasoline takes its toll on Meals On Wheels

In some parts of the US, volunteer drivers are giving up meal deliveries to homebound senior citizens because they can no longer afford to fill their tanks.

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Vinsen Faris has watched many volunteers come and go during his 16 years with Meals On Wheels of Johnson and Ellis Counties in Texas. But even he was surprised last week when eight volunteers left for the same reason: the high cost of filling their tanks to deliver meals to homebound seniors.

"Until now we've never had people call up and specifically say, 'I'm having to drop out because of the price of gas,' " says Mr. Faris, executive director. "I think it's sticker shock. They fill up and say, 'Wow, I just paid $2 a gallon.' "

Across the country, other Meals On Wheels sites are reporting similar experiences. Although the number of departing volunteers is small and scattered, the losses illustrate one way higher fuel prices are affecting social-service organizations and those who help them.

Nationwide, Meals On Wheels and other programs provide meals to approximately 1 million homebound older people every day. In many cases, the meal is the only nutritious food the recipient will get that day. Some programs serve 30 to 40 meals daily, while others feed 3,000. Some are small and rural and rely on volunteers. Others serve urban and suburban areas and pay drivers modest wages. The vast majority use volunteer drivers.

For many recipients, the Monday-through-Friday deliveries of two meals a day also provide another form of nourishment - brief companionship, conversation, and concern for their well-being.

Faris calls the drivers "our eyes and our ears" because of their daily visits. In a majority of cases, he explains, they are the homebound person's only contact with the outside world.

Many volunteer drivers for meal programs are retired and live on fixed incomes. "Their heart may still want them to be out on the route, but their pocketbook prevents them from being there," says Peggy Ingraham, a director for the Meals On Wheels Association of America in Alexandria, Va.

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