The Meals on Wheels concept originated in Britain during WWII, with authorities delivering meals to elderly, frail people. The first Australian service began in 1953 when Mrs E. Watts pedalled a tricycle around South Melbourne. The first meal was soup, roast lamb and plum pudding and cost 1/3d (around 13 cents). In 1954, the Red Cross provided a car and volunteers to deliver the meals.
South Australia was not far behind in providing a hot midday meal to disadvantaged clients. The project was being discussed in 1953 and their date of incorporation was 4 September 1954 which may mean that the South Australian organisation was ‘the first to be constituted’ as distinct from being the first to supply meals.
South Australia’s Meals on Wheels service began as the result of lobbying by Doris Taylor, a wheelchair-bound woman who organised many relief efforts during the Great Depression. She was the inspiration behind the first meals on wheels kitchen, which was established in Port Adelaide in 1954. The first President of the organisation was the late Don Dunstan MP, who would later become Premier of South Australia.
In New South Wales, Meals on Wheels was pioneered by Sydney City Council in March 1957. In the first week 150 meals, cooked in the Town Hall kitchen, were served for inner-city dwellers. Each meal cost two shillings.
By charging recipients a small fee, Meals on Wheels was able to provide better quality meals. It also removed the stigma of charity, despite the fact that the service relied heavily on unpaid volunteers. However, today the practice of having meals prepared by enthusiastic volunteers has been replaced by a much more regulated system with OH&S and food safety regulations governing the operation of the services.
Generally, meals are still delivered by volunteers in their own cars, often by a team of two people – a driver and a ‘jockey’. There are many thousands of volunteers and clients throughout Australia and the service is particularly important in regional and rural areas.
Today the service is not without its problems. A 2013 research study expected to find that the main difficulty was lack of volunteers but instead found that it was the heavy burden of government regulation that had many branches struggling. By then, the number of meals delivered was declining. In part, this was because commercial services were offering economical meals with greater choice.
However, it’s still going strong. As of 2019/20 Meals on Wheels services delivered more than 10 million meals annually to more than 75,000 people in Australian cities and regional and rural areas. Meals were delivered by around 76,000 volunteers.