Meals on Wheels: Caring for Seniors in the Upstate

One of the hardest things about facing old age is the idea of losing one’s independence. Leaving a home and familiar surroundings, and sometimes a pet, is something most would avoid if possible. Meals on Wheels and similar nutrition programs help seniors stay in their homes by providing not just a meal, but someone who checks on them regularly.

Meals on Wheels is a national network that began in 1968 to meet a social need, and today there are more than 5,000 local programs, each run independently to meet the needs of individual communities. There are several such programs in the Upstate—some of which go by different names, like Mobile Meals of Spartanburg and Piedmont Agency on Aging serving Greenwood, Abbeville, and Laurens Counties—but the national Meals on Wheels web site lists all programs that provide meals to seniors.

Meals on Wheels Greenville County has been serving homebound individuals—not just seniors, and not based on income—since the inception of Meals on Wheels nationally, in 1968, and their service covers the whole county, from Travelers Rest to Fountain Inn and everything in between.

Executive director Catriona Carlisle explains that the national organization is a membership organization that supports local programs through advocacy and lobbying efforts and providing financial resources through grant opportunities, but they don’t mandate how programs are run. That means the local programs have the freedom to make decisions about funding, staffing, and partnerships with other organizations.

The Greenville group is a United Way-funded organization, and additionally, they have two fund-raising events each year: the Sweetheart Charity Ball on the first Saturday in February, and the Wheels for Meals cycling event at the end of April. All of the United Way money goes directly to the hot meals program, and the other funding pays for a staff of 26 full- and part-time employees who prepare meals, train volunteers, and perform the operations that keep the program running.

Carlisle says one of the goals of Meals on Wheels Greenville County is to be a resource for more than just food. “For many of our clients, we are a great support system— it’s not just providing a meal, although that’s obviously what people think about when they think about what we do,” she says. While they don’t attempt to provide all of the service that their home-bound clients require, they do connect clients to other agencies with the expertise to meet a particular need.

A resource book is provided to new clients listing agencies that help seniors, and the volunteers, who see clients on a regular basis, keep an eye out for changes that might indicate a need for another resource. “Our volunteers are a life line and let us know when they have a concern,” Carlisle says. Volunteers also pass along information that is pertinent to Meals on Wheels clients, such as Medicare changes or the availability of free flu shots.

Clients are referred by a doctor or a social service agency, and after the referral, a phone assessment takes place to ascertain whether they fit the criteria for home-bound and whether they have the physical and mental ability to prepare a meal. One of the organization’s 5-year goals, though, is to move from phone assessments to in-person. There are details that aren’t necessarily conveyed over the phone, Carlisle says, that can be picked up on a visit to the client’s home.

Forming partnerships with churches and other local organizations allows the group to expand their services. One such partnership started last year, teaming up with the Center for Community Service, Sans Souci Baptist Church, and Brookwood Church to provide groceries along with the hot meals once a month. The churches assemble the bags with staple items like cereal, cans of soup, granola bars—nutritious items that don’t require cooking—and Meals on Wheels volunteers pick them up. “Many of our clients are struggling to make ends meet,” Carlisle says, “and towards the end of the month they are stretching.”

Meals on Wheels Greenville County’s biggest need is for volunteers. Greenville is a large county, and there is always a need for more drivers. Carlisle estimates that in a given week there are 400 routes that need to be filled. Each Thursday morning there is a volunteer orientation in the main office that lasts about 45 minutes, ensuring that new volunteers can quickly get up to speed.

Photos courtesy of Meals on Wheels Greenville County.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Spartanburg, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at