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.
As with many Australian firsts, this one is disputed. The Meals on Wheels organisation in South Australia claim that they were the first service in Australia to provide a hot midday meal to disadvantaged clients. But since their date of incorporation was 4 September, 1954 it seems that the South Melbourne Council and Home Help Auxiliary have a prior claim. Perhaps the truth likes in the wording – 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. Two decades later, 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 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 a 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 However, today the practice of having meals prepared by enthusiastic volunteers has been replaced by a much more regulated system with OH&S and food safety regulations governing the operation of the services.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.