Food for thought

2011-07-26 00:00

THE line of more than 400 people snakes out of the front door of the little church hall and extends right around the corner and to the road. It will be a long time before people at the back get to the front of the queue. But these are not voters, waiting for a once-every-five-years’ chance to cast their ballot. These are people waiting for their daily plate of food.

Twenty percent of South Africa’s population goes to bed hungry every night. Meals on Wheels South Africa feeds 10 million people a year, but this is just a fraction of the people who desperately need good nutrition.

Meals on Wheels is well known worldwide. The organisation was established shortly after World War 2 in England to feed elderly people whose support structures had been devastated by the war. There are now Meals on Wheels organisations in every country on Earth, with South Africa no exception. Meals on Wheels SA was launched in East London in 1963, and has maintained a proud tradition of caring for the elderly. Every day, volunteers at almost 200 Meals on Wheels branches country wide cook and serve a nourishing hot meal. These are either delivered to homes and hospices, or served in a central dining hall, combining a square meal with a social get-together.

But South Africa’s number of social challenges means that Meals on Wheels SA cannot only cater for the old and infirm. There are millions of people who cannot fend for themselves: children going to school on empty stomachs, old people going without food in order to stretch their pension to feed their grandchildren and HIV sufferers who are too weak to eat properly. With social dislocation on such a large scale, Meals on Wheels has expanded its operation to include food security in general to anyone in need.

The core business of cooking and delivering meals to the old and infirm still goes on. Pietermaritzburg Meals on Wheels delivers almost entirely to the urban elderly: couples incapacitated through illness or bereavement and elderly people abandoned by their families. In order to give them quality of life and some respite from care and loneliness, Meals on Wheels creates a vital network of support and company.

In townships and rural areas, Meals on Wheels runs soup kitchens and feeding schemes. The main problem is that as food prices rise and service delivery deteriorates, demand is massively outstripping supply. It is difficult to imagine the kind of choices faced by hungry people: a Meals on Wheels soup kitchen can feed school children their only meal of the day, but children are then forced to bunk school in order to eat. Grandparents might have to walk several kilometres over appalling roads to get a square meal. HIV sufferers are brought to Meals on Wheels centres in wheelbarrows.

Venues are also a problem. Sometimes cooking is done in makeshift kitchens on street corners or under trees. An entire centre can be crammed into someone’s home, with volunteers spilling over into bedrooms and out into the street. Because of the lack of resources in rural areas and townships, any available space is pressed into service and any available means of obtaining and cooking food has to be used.

There are some extraordinary examples of resourcefulness and imagination. At one rural branch, the manager’s husband takes a donkey cart out into the veld once a week to gather fire wood for the week’s cooking. In the Pietermaritzburg branch, volunteer delivery man Don Bransby is 86 years old and still delivering hot, cooked meals to people younger than himself. In Imbali township, there is nowhere to store donated food or equipment, so branch manager Lily Ncalane has to take everything home with her every night, after cooking and serving two meals a day to 120 people. In Edendale, the branch is facing possible eviction as the operation has become too big for the church hall where it is currently housed. Because of the large numbers of children they serve, they would love to be able to provide toys and books for the children. The Georgedale branch (Hammarsdale) has to deliver meals to more than 300 people every day at the local clinic, using taxis or bicycles.

Despite the overwhelming demand and constant challenges, the staff and volunteers at Meals on Wheels remain positive.

“It’s a calling,” says Sam Davies of the Pietermaritzburg branch. “We have dedicated helpers who are committed and reliable. This is a very important service we offer — using our 21-year-old Mazda — and the rewards are great.”

“Oh, we would love some help!” says Makhosozana Hadebe of Georgedale. “We have to cook the food and deliver it to the clinic. There are more than 300 people waiting for food but we have no transport so we have to pay for taxis to deliver the meals.”

In Imbali, at a crèche feeding 45 children, Ncalana believes that the Lord will provide. “We always need more food,” she says, “but otherwise we are happy.”

Zwe Ndlovu of Edendale is simply worried about the size of the premises. “We feed 400 people now and more people come. We are running out of space — and money.”

Meals on Wheels South Africa is not just about cooking and delivering meals. The cooked meal is often used as the attraction for people to come to self-help schemes and employment projects. Elderly people are encouraged to come to a central dining room for companionship. Many branches run their own vegetable gardens, have sewing or craft projects or teach basic literacy. Some serve crèches or day-care centres.

Most of us take a good square meal for granted. But for many, hunger is a daily fact of life. Meals on Wheels is helping with good nutrition and empowerment, and helping to put the issue of food security on the table.



• Contact a local Meals on Wheels branch and find out what it needs. Rural areas usually lack pots and pans, utensils, cooking equipment, transport, fuel and donations of food.

• Some donors run a small credit account at a local supermarket, butchery or bakery so that the Meals on Wheels branch can purchase a certain value of monthly goods.

• Many branches suffer from a lack of organisational experience. Experienced managers and businesspeople can offer valuable advice and training.

• Consider helping towards an electricity or rental account.

• Adopt a branch as part of your company’s social responsibility programme. Get the staff on board to help. Charitable donations are tax-deductible.

• Branches that deliver food will always need volunteer drivers and transport.


(Meals delivered to the elderly for a small fee)

To feed 100 people three times a week:

• R2 000 meat from the local butcher every month (stewing meat, mince, chicken for roasting and an occasional beef roast);

• rice;

• vegetables in season;

• jelly and tinned fruit for dessert in summer; and

• sago or bread-and-butter for pudding in winter.



(300 people fed at no charge every day)

• 10 kg of soya mince every week (prefer soya to avoid the danger of spoiling through lack of refrigeration);

• 50 kg samp and beans;

• 50 kg mielie meal or rice;

• 10 bags potatoes, 10 bags onions, 10 bags cabbages; and

• vegetables in season.

There is no set fee for a meal from Meals on Wheels in the city. Meals are charged according to the income of the person concerned. The income (or lack of income) needs to be proved and there is also a face-to-face interview with applicants before they are put on the Meals on Wheels roster for subsidised meals. Some recipients of meals are not indigent. They might be disabled or infirm, or have to care for a disabled person. In these cases, the issue is not that they cannot pay for the meal, but rather that they cannot fend for themselves. The cost is then worked out accordingly.

City: Sam Davies at 072 234 7987

Imbali: Lily Ncalane at 072 629 6344

Edendale: Zwe Ndlovu at 084 255 8004

Georgedale: Makhosozana Hadebe at 072 966 2999

Helpline: Niki Moore at 083 758 4483

Meals on Wheels is a charitable organisation that provides meals for people too poor or infirm to fend for themselves. You can sponsor a hungry person via SMS – simply SMS the word ‘MEAL’ to 39055. Your SMS is billed at R15. You can also visit the website at

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