How REAL Services Started Businesses To Fund Meals On Wheels

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(FM Engaged Photo/Krystal Vivian)

REAL Services is dedicated to helping elderly and low-income people become and stay independent for life. If you or someone you love needs help, call REAL Services at 574-233-8205.

By: REAL ServicesHome Comfort Experts

When you’re operating a not-for-profit organization, ensuring funding sources for programs can be a tremendous challenge.

Government funding helps provide financial resources for programs like REAL Services’ Meals on Wheels. But funding from the government is never a guarantee, and it makes programs vulnerable to cutbacks.

That’s why it’s important for nonprofits like REAL Services to have a plan to keep their programs running. While 30% of the funding for Meals on Wheels comes from the donations of clients and community partners, diversification is key to longevity and success. Thankfully, before the government cutbacks in 2020, George Hawthorne and Becky Zaseck already laid the groundwork for supplementing the funding for Meals on Wheels.

Hawthorne, the director of nutrition and transportation, and Zaseck, the CEO, made a presentation to a business class at Notre Dame  in 2015. The class was tasked to look at a nonprofit and find a way to help them raise additional funds. One of the suggestions was to develop a food truck.

“It was a very intriguing presentation. We looked at it and we mulled it over for about a year and my CEO and I talked about it and decided it was a good idea,” Hawthorne says. “So, we jumped on the bandwagon and pushed it forward.”

Hawthorne says that one of the major advocates for the food truck — known as the REAL Grille — was a board member: Mary Jo Stanley. He credits her with being the driving force in raising every cent of the $160,000 that was needed to buy and outfit the REAL Grille.

The REAL Grille was completed in 2018, just in time to help offset potential funding losses from the cutbacks of the federal Older Americans Act.

“We were already looking for a way to raise additional resources due to the funding cut that we’d received from the federal and state government,” he says. “Expenses were going up too. In reality, even if you have flat funding, you always need to find a way to increase your income to be able to stay in business.”

Hawthorne says that the REAL Grille is best geared toward larger events — where 60 or more people are likely to gather — like South Bend’s Best Week Ever, corporate lunches like those at Beacon Health Systems and Barnes and Thornburg, and gatherings like the World Pulse Festival.

But the REAL Grille is just one piece of the puzzle in providing additional funding to Meals on Wheels. The nonprofit was already operating a catering service: Simply Catering to You.

REAL Services catering business started to take off when Hawthorne took over as the director of nutrition/transportation in 2009. The Meals on Wheels department had changed its physical location 13 times in the previous 26 years, and finally found a permanent home complete with a commercial kitchen.

“The previous person who ran just the Meals on Wheels portion of the programs would do boxed lunches to make a little money that way,” Hawthorne says. “We opened the kitchen in May 2009 and we finally had a permanent location. So, I thought if we’re gonna do it, let’s just do it. We went whole hog into catering.”

In the early days of Simply Catering to You, Hawthorne says the organization didn’t do much advertising and relied on the support of partners like First Response and Barnes and Thornburg, who used catering frequently.

“They really helped us get our feet wet. But once people knew all the money we raised went right into the Meals on Wheels program, it was a no-brainer for companies to cater with us,” he says. “Why use someone else when a business can get its catering done and support a great cause at the same time?”

Simply Catering to You has a standing menu like the REAL Grille, but they can go off menu and cook just about anything that someone might want.

Zoom, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the new work from home / hybrid work culture have affected REAL Services’ food businesses. With fewer people in the office there have been less corporate lunches and opportunities for the REAL Grille and Simply Catering to You to feed hungry employees.

Hawthorne views these challenges as small bumps in the road, though. He sees plenty of room for growth with both businesses in the wedding and event spaces alone. Once the pandemic eases, Hawthorne believes business will heat up for the REAL Grille and Simply Catering to You.

The REAL Grille and Simply Catering to You raise between $20,000 and $50,000 a year in profit to help fund Meals on Wheels. Every single dollar goes directly to the program.

The businesses have been so successful for REAL Services that Hawthorne was asked — prior to the pandemic — to present at a conference for Meals on Wheels America, the national branch of the organization. His presentation focused on alternative ways to augment funding for programs.

“There are a lot of people out there looking to supplement the funding for their programs to take care of the increased demand they’ve seen through the last decade,” he says. “The people we serve are an aging population. That may reverse in the next 20 to 30 years, but right now the number of people 65 and older are growing.”

Meals on Wheels has a positive, direct impact on seniors in need, but it also has a positive impact for taxpayers.

“You’re looking at individuals who are on a fixed income and facing the rising cost of gas, heating, rent, and food. If you couple that with individuals who are unable to prepare meals for themselves for physical or mental reasons and who are homebound — those people literally need someone to take care of them,” Hawthorne says. “These people could end up going to a nursing home, but that can cost up to $5,000 per month. We can feed a person for a few hundred dollars a month and provide them with in-home services. That saves the state of Indiana and taxpayers money, because these people aren’t going into nursing homes and becoming Medicaid clients.”

The implications of having access to a nutritious, well-balanced meal are vital to living a healthy life for seniors. Hawthorne puts it succinctly:

“Water and food are the basics — the building blocks of life,” he says. “If you don’t have those two items, nothing else matters.”

The REAL Grille is available for events and business lunches from March to November while Simply Catering to You is available year-round. To check availability or to schedule either service, call the Meals on Wheels office at 574-256-1649. Services can be booked more than a year in advance.

The Meals on Wheels program is also looking for additional volunteers to deliver meals in St. Joseph County and in the city of Elkhart. Volunteers are especially needed on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but there is a need for every day of the week. Give something REAL: Volunteer.

You can help REAL Services deliver meals to area residents in need by volunteering with Meals On Wheels. Fill out a volunteer application online to get started.