Meals on wheels services and the food security of older people
In recent years Meals on Wheels (MoW) services have been in a state of decline as austerity policies have become entrenched. However, this decline is occurring with little knowledge of the impact withdrawal of MoW services has on the health and well-being of those who use them. The pandemic has raised awareness of precarity and vulnerability in relation to food that affects many people in the UK and other Westernised countries and this provides further context for the analysis presented. This paper presents findings of a mixed methods ethnographic study drawing on qualitative interviews and visual methods underpinned by social practice theory to explore the household food practices of older people receiving MoW services. Interviews were conducted with 14 older people receiving MoW, eight MoW staff delivering MoW services in the east of England and one expert. The Covid-19 pandemic interrupted the study, and once the first lockdown began visits to the homes of older people were terminated and remaining interviews were undertaken by telephone. The study found that a number of threats accumulated to change food practices and moved people towards vulnerability to food insecurity. Threats included difficulty accessing food and cooking due to sensory and physical challenges. The MoW service increased participants’ coping capacity. As well benefiting from the food provided, the relational aspect of the service was important. Brief encounters between MoW staff built caring relationships that developed over time to ensure older people felt valued and cared for. The study demonstrates how MoW services make a positive contribution to food practices, supporting vulnerable adults to continue living well in their own homes and protecting them from food insecurity and ill-being. Local authorities looking to make cost savings through ending MoW services should consider the impact this would have on the well-being of older residents.