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Sustain Older People’s Food Campaign Support and advice

A guide to running meals on wheels

Community meals on wheels in Westminster. Photo credit - Chris Skarratt

Community meals on wheels in Westminster. Photo credit - Chris Skarratt

Guidance for community groups, local authorities and social business starting or running meals on wheels services.

1) Reflect on the emergency response and have a clear ‘origin story’

It is important to take some time to reflect on how you provided meals during the peak of the pandemic and to make sure you capture the learning and experience of this. Having a clear ‘origin story’ can be very useful when engaging partners and stakeholders, decision-makers, funders, media and the public. This is also useful if you do not plan to continue the service, but other local organisations might be interested in this. 

2) Identify how a longer term service will be similar or different to the emergency response 

There are likely to be both similarities and differences between how you run crisis and now more long-term provision. What will you continue, stop or change about how you have been working during the emergency phase? This might include planning to apply for funding and employing staff, moving to a paid model, requesting subsidies from the council, linking in with adult social care, moving to buying food stock rather than using surplus, or a range of other changes.

3) Find out what people would like from the service

It is vital to ensure that there is clear demand for the service. At its core this will be about identifying whether there is a sufficient number of people who would like to receive meals, but it will also be important to ask how people would like the meals delivered and how you the think you could add further value to the regular meals delivery beyond the meal itself, for example by providing additional information or support.

4) Identify how a meals delivery service could link into other provision 

While there are some successful standalone meals delivery services, there are likely to be a number of ways which meals preparation and delivery, as well as promotion of the service, could be linked with other local organisations and activities.  

  • Could a meals delivery service also provide food for local lunch clubs or could lunch clubs prepare additional meals portions for take-away or delivery? 

  • Could meals be prepared by school caterers or local community food projects? 

  • Could other paid-for catering services help to cover kitchen running costs? 

  • Could food be sourced jointly with others to minimise costs? 

You may wish to survey service users and/or to map related services in the local area and reach out to them to discuss potential collaboration.  

5) Think about different ways to balance the books 

Many older people would be able to and happy to pay for meals. A key part of this is maintaining high quality of meals so that individuals, their families and referral agencies have confidence in the meals. There are also examples of older people paying for meals and this helping to support free meals for other groups unable to pay, this can help older people feel like they are contributing to something positive as well as getting a good meal. 

It’s important to think of this beyond the costs of meals and charges. Some successful meals on wheels services maximise the impact of a meals on wheels service for both the recipients and those making and delivering meals. This includes offering enhanced welfare, nutrition, falls prevention support or offering supported employment. This can bring in additional funding and other support.  

  • Which other organisations and services are keen to reach older people and others receiving meals? 

  • How could provision of information, advice and other support be integrated within a meals delivery? 

  • How could you identify people’s need for other support, including preventative support? This would benefit them as well as reduce demand for crisis support. 

  • Could you link with other service providers e.g. homelessness prevention to broaden the types of referrals that you receive?  

6) Be clear on the impact which you think you can have 

We know it can be challenging to make the case for a service which is preventative or brings savings to budgets in a different part of the public sector to the one that funds the service. Running a survey of your clients can help with this, in which you ask questions about how safe and healthy they feel, and/or their use or other services. If applying for funding or council support, statistics from this or quotes from service users can help.

7) Play to your strengths 

If working in partnership, each organisation will probably bring different strengths . This could include having trusted relationships with target groups, receiving referrals and safeguarding personal data, sourcing food, preparing meals, delivering meals, designing welfare checks, linking to other support and advice beyond the meal, gathering feedback and evaluating the service. 

8) Learn from and connect with others;

Sustain has compiled some examples of different kinds of delivery models, including established services and others which have popped up during the crisis. You can also connect with others trying to sustain services by joining the meals on wheels e-forum (see below). 

9) Foster support from decision-makers and funders in your vision and plan 

The crisis has highlighted a number of vulnerabilities in our food system both during emergency and in an ongoing way. Commissioners and decision-makers may well be keen to hear about a meals on wheels service can address these issues in the long-term. We recommend getting in touch with these people as soon as you can to tell your ‘origin story’ and get them excited about your long-term vision. Don’t think of them just as potential funders only, they could be part of developing your vision and championing your goals to others.;

10) Pass your learning and ideas onto someone else (where you don’t want to run the service yourself) 

We recognise that some of the services which popped up during the pandemic will not want to continue this for a number of reasons. However, your learning and experiences and any partnerships you have formed could be incredible useful to another local organisation which does want to take this on. Your local Age UK branch may be interested in this, or if you do not know who to connect with please contact

Older People’s Food Campaign: Meals on wheels services support thousands of older people every day to stay independent in their own homes and enrich their lives.

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