Meals on wheels is the concept of delivering fresh, yummy food to people who have difficulty preparing it themselves - not just the elderly but also the disabled or otherwise infirm. At the moment I work for a charity that offers a Meals on Wheels service (MoW) and although I don't deliver the meals myself, I have a fairly intimate understanding of the entire process. Also note that there are two types of MoW service, hot and frozen. Finally, please note the descriptions below may not apply to all MoW services around the world.

Hot meals

Hot meals begins by determining how many people require your meals today, what their dietary requirements are, and where they live. The meals themselves are pre-made by a large food supplier and are stored in huge freezers until needed. The frozen meals are inserted into a huge oven and cooked en-masse. The cooking begins at about 9am.

Once the meals are prepared, they are placed into 'hot locks', large insulated and self-heating crates. These will keep the meals hot and tasty for about two hours. The meals are inserted in reverse order to the delivery schedule, so the driver just takes whatever's on top and saves time digging through the hot lock for each item.

At about 11am, all the loaded hot locks are placed in the vehicles. Ideally, small vans or station wagons are used, but in our case we have to make do with tiny Peugeot 106s that are barely suited for driving, let alone carrying two large crates running off its battery. The drivers head out, following a 'round sheet', which divides the locality into delivery areas to ensure maximum efficiency.

All meals need to be delivered within 90 minutes, and on average there are between 15-25 people on each delivery round. The drivers do have time for a quick chat with the recipient, an important aspect of the service as MoW recipients often live alone and don't get much in the way of social interaction. After ensuring all is well at the recipient's house, they move on to the next delivery. If anything is found to be amiss, the local council or the recipient's emergency contact (usually a family member or neighbour) is informed.

Once all the food is delivered, the drivers return to unload the empty boxes, hand in their takings and the kitchen staff gets meals ready to be cooked tomorrow.

Frozen meals

Frozen MoW service operates on a far more relaxed schedule than hot, as deliveries are made every few days as opposed to every day.

Recipients are given an order form and select how much of each frozen meal they'd like to receive. The order is loaded into a refrigerated van and taken to their house, and placed into their freezer. Some MoW services will sell or loan freezers and microwaves to their customers so they can prepare the meals, although they are usually also suitable for cooking in a conventional oven.

The typical delivery cycle of a frozen service is every two weeks, and gives the customers a broad choice of what they eat every day.

Meals on Wheels services enable isolated people to live with dignity in their own homes, enjoying the convenience of fresh food and the pleasure of a friendly, reassuring face coming to visit them.

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