Meals on Wheels
Reporter: Bryan Seymour

Meals on Wheels is in real danger of disappearing for good, leaving stranded the 80,000 Australians who depend on them. Rising petrol and food prices, our ageing population and falling volunteer numbers are taking a toll.

We've travelled right across the country to see how bad it is and what can be done.

(Reporter)"What does meals on wheels mean to you?"

(Alice Smith) "Everything."

(Volunteer Pam) "You really can't describe totally what you get out of it."

In Perth, in Melbourne, in Sydney and all over Australia 15 million meals are prepared and delivered every year. But for how much longer?

"I think it'll (Meals on Wheels) disappear," said Les MacDonald, head of NSW Meals on Wheels. "The very strong feedback that we're getting from our network is that many of them are saying that's it, I don't think I can take it any longer."

His ageing volunteer workforce is struggling to keep up with the demand.

"For many of them, what they're saying to us is it's a choice between eating and volunteering," MacDonald said.

Eat, or deliver food? Such a thing would have baffled Doris Taylor. Doris started Meals on Wheels in South Australia in 1953, 20 years before another Aussie icon, the Sydney Opera House, was even opened.

Here's the twist in the tale. In Australia, we've seen the number of volunteers increase over the last 15 years by about 10 per cent. A third of Australian adults, or 5.4 million of us, volunteer regularly. Yet you'll be surprised to learn that overall the total time spent by all volunteers is actually falling.

"So figures are going up, numbers are going up but in fact the amount of volunteering that people are doing is going down," said Dr Melanie Oppenheimer, who has just released her latest book, 'Volunteering: Why We Can't Survive Without it'.

"And with new interest groups coming up all the time, like the environment and climate change, those sorts of things are really, they're very popular and so that might be taking volunteers away from other areas."

The massive increase in causes to support is stealing new volunteers away from traditional groups as younger people opt for sexier, high profile projects.

"They chose things like Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, what they would've regarded as causes that were close to their hearts," said Les MacDonald.

"I think it's a shame. I think that the younger ones, if they'd focus some of their attention on doing things like meals on wheels, that they'd get a lot of satisfaction, I think it'd do them good," said Melbourne volunteer Rosie.

"The younger generation volunteer for different reasons, they volunteer often to meet a need of their own," MacDonald said.

Those needs include volunteering to bolster your CV, getting qualifications and training... and looking cool.

"We're getting younger, newer volunteers who don't see Meals on Wheels as a very popular kind of volunteering area," said Steve Baskeyfield, a former chef who oversees a thriving operation in Stirling, near Perth, of 100 volunteers drawn from a pool of 500 willing to help.

"After all they are our most important ingredient in this meals on wheels operation," Baskeyfield said. "One of our volunteers said this morning she saw a lot of them as her parents, she was actually looking after them."

There'll be no-one to look after them in a few years, without fresh volunteers and Dr Oppenheimer has the solution.

"It's like the red cross, it's an organisation that people know what it does but that's about it, so I think that we need a public relations campaign nationwide to tell the younger generations, to tell the new migrants to our society, what Meals on Wheels does and that it needs your help," said Dr Oppenheimer.

"I think you'll find that people will flood to the organisation."

The essential service meals on wheels provides saves all of us around a billion dollars annually. If we lose it the cost will be much, much higher.

"You can't really put a value, put a price, put a value on it because basically it's the support you get from them that means everything."

Story links:

Meals on Wheels (from here you can click on your state):

Contact Details:

National SA, NT, ACT: (08) 8271 8700 /

WA (08) 9244 8233 /

QLD (07)3205 5588 /

NSW (02)8219 4200 /

VIC (03) 9350 8708 /

TAS (03) 6228 4546 /