Meals on Wheels volunteer Terry Town drives 90 miles each week to deliver meals to homebound Mainers near Ellsworth. Credit: Courtesy of Meals on Wheels

Inflation and rising gas prices are squeezing social programs in Maine, including Meals on Wheels, which delivers meals to homebound seniors and relies on volunteer drivers whose mileage reimbursement is not stretching as far.

Some drivers on fixed incomes are quitting or stopping temporarily until gas prices decline or Meals on Wheels can compensate more than 45 cents per mile. Losing even a few drivers, especially in rural areas where the mileage adds up, is a hardship for the program, which already operates on a stretched federal budget.

“It’s making a devastating impact for those of us that are relying on volunteers,” said Rebecca Kirk, executive director of the Eastern Area Agency on Aging in Brewer, one of five Maine agencies serving as a Meals on Wheels distribution hub. “The loss of even a handful of drivers is significant for us because we’re not quite sure where we’re going to go to make them up.”

So far there hasn’t been a mass exodus of drivers. Meals on Wheels driver Terry Towne, who travels about 90 miles a week to deliver to 15 people, said he has been able to handle the escalating gas prices. He also distributes pet food once a month.

Meals on Wheels packers in Ellsworth put together frozen meal packages for homebound Mainers, who get five meals per delivery. Credit: Courtesy of Meals on Wheels

“It’s a hit, but I’m about breaking even on the fuel reimbursement,” said Towne — a retired land steward formerly with Maine Coast Heritage Trust — who has been a driver for one year to locations including Blue Hill, Stonington and Deer Isle.

The Brewer location delivers five days worth of food to 700 people each week with 143 volunteer drivers. One of Kirk’s biggest fears is not being able to get to everyone who needs meals and having to create a waiting list.

“That’s a really difficult pill to swallow,” she said.

Meals on Wheels drivers work for free and have gas mileage reimbursed at the state’s rate of 45 cents per mile or less, much lower than this year’s federal rate of 58.5 cents. The 45 cents will be raised 1 cent per mile later this year to 46 cents.

But even after that raise, the rate will pale in comparison to surcharges of 45 cents to 55 cents that Uber will let drivers charge passengers starting Wednesday for the next 60 days to help offset rising gas prices.

Tight supplies and fears related to the Russia-Ukraine war are fueling the gas price increases. Prices for regular gas in Maine averaged $4.25 per gallon on Tuesday morning, up from $3.50 one month ago and $2.83 one year ago, according to AAA. Prices across the state ranged from a low of $4.13 per gallon for regular in Aroostook County to a high of $4.38 per gallon in Cumberland County. The U.S. average was $4.32 on Tuesday.

The number of Mainers using the Meals on Wheels program spiked during the pandemic, with more people homebound early in the pandemic. Kirk said some who should have been in the program earlier signed up during the pandemic when they realized the program is for anyone age 60 or older who is homebound.

About 14 percent of Maine’s senior population of 391,000 was threatened by or experiencing hunger in 2021, according to Meals on Wheels America, although pandemic changes were not figured into that number. That compares to a similar percentage of the almost 76 million Americans who are 60 or older.

Volunteer driver Terry Towne picks up frozen meals in insulated bags at the Meals on Wheels location in Ellsworth on March 15, 2022, to deliver to 15 homebound individuals. Credit: Courtesy of Meals on Wheels

Some states, including Texas, have seen applications for the food delivery service increase as gas prices increased and inflation took hold. That has not happened yet in Maine, but Ashley Perrone, site manager for the Southern Maine Agency on Aging in Biddeford, anticipates an uptick in applications if the high prices and inflation drag on.

For some people, the five delivered meals are all they eat during the week, said retired special education teacher Marcie Moon, who has delivered food for 14 years. She drives about 65 miles each week to deliver meals to eight homes in Wells. Moon said she has gotten to know many of the people on her route and called deliveries a “very needed social thing” for them.

The Biddeford location has 100 drivers delivering to 1,000 people. So far, it hasn’t made any changes in response to rising prices, but it is keeping a close eye on the effects on its drivers and on food prices, she said.

Kirk said she has seen a combined 17 percent rise in food costs and transportation to get the food to her location over the past couple weeks. Ongoing supply chain disruptions mean she cannot predict whether she’ll have access to the foods for menus approved by a nutritionist.

“We’ll make adjustments based on what our vendor is able to get for us,” she said. “It has been a very interesting time to try to make everything happen.”