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Geoffrey Mcallister, Deseret News
Meals-on-Wheels volunteer Charles Middleton, 88, delivers a meal in Lehi.

LEHI — One day a week Charlton Middleton, 88, volunteers to deliver up to 10 noontime meals to elderly shut-ins.

So does composer Steven Kapp Perry and Renita Revill, the director of the Miss Utah Pageant.

Middleton is the oldest volunteer in the local Meals-on-Wheels program, which is in a push to get more volunteer drivers, coordinator Liz Merrell said.

"Volunteering is a good idea," Middleton said. "It's worthwhile. I have a lot in common with the people I deliver to."

Some of them are younger than Middleton. He's been delivering for about two weeks, once a week, as a substitute driver.

"I'd do it more often if they'd let me," he said.

It's all part of a push toward voluntarism in the Meals-on-Wheels program in Utah, Wasatch and Summit counties by the Mountainland Association of Governments.

Starting in July the meals program began opening a new Utah County area each month to volunteer delivery drivers. In June and July, Merrell opened Lehi. In August she's working on American Fork and Orem.

No paid drivers will be let go, Merrell said, but in a year or so, when Meals-on-Wheels has established solid ground with volunteers, paid drivers may be replaced with unpaid drivers as they quit.

One day a week for up to an hour a volunteer picks up hot and cold packaged meals at a local senior center and delivers them to a list of homebound residents, age 60 and over. The Utah County Jail prepares the meals through its culinary arts program using paid staffers along with inmates.

"I think it's safer than fast food," Merrell said. "They have constant supervision. They grow their own vegetables and make their own bread."

The noon meals must be delivered within four hours of being placed in the thermal bags or they must be thrown away in compliance with state health rules, she said. That happens rarely.

"I wouldn't want to be the delivery person who had to make that phone call that the senior would not be eating that day because they forgot," Merrell said.

The three-county area has 13 senior centers where volunteers pick up the meals. Seniors may also walk into most senior centers Monday through Friday and get a noon meal with a day's notice, except in Spanish Fork or Santaquin, where meals are cooked at the senior centers and not available every day.

In Utah County the suggested donation to eat at senior centers is $2, while the delivered meals are $2.25 in Utah County and $2.50 in Wasatch and Summit counties.

The three counties now have about 45,000 seniors, with 70,000 expected within 10 years, Merrell said. They are starting the volunteer program now to avoid a hike in taxes in years to come.

"We want to grow the program slowly so we don't have to ask for a tax increase," Merrell said.

A paid route costs some $80,000 a year including the vehicle, the salaried driver, fuel and insurance, she said. The program delivers meals to 600 people.

Since July 1 some 50 volunteers have signed up in Utah County. Half of the Summit and Wasatch county drivers are already volunteers, she said.

"Volunteers are happier and healthier people because they're doing something for someone else," she said. "I have the happiest job on Earth."

Last January 140 seniors were waiting to get on the Meals-on-Wheels program, but that has been whittled down to about 35, said program director Erin Dyreng.

The more volunteers they get the more meals can be delivered. Expectations are that the program will continue to expand.

"The 85 and older population is the fastest-growing in Utah County," Merrell said, citing a recent MAG study. "Beginning in 2015, one person in Utah will turn 65 years old every 23 minutes."

To volunteer, contact Merrell at 229-3821 or [email protected], or Dyreng at 229-3803 or [email protected].

E-mail: [email protected]