The fast lane beckons for meals on wheels

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The Independent Online
Until he was 76, George Thomas had never so much as boiled an egg for himself - he had never needed to. The former factory worker stepped from parental home to married life in his late teens, never doubting that a working man could rely on a meal on the table at 6pm each evening.

When he became a widower, George, who lives in south London, not only had to cope with the grief, he also had a very practical worry: he had to learn how to look after himself. Often the energy required to shop and cook was more than he could muster, so he would make do with a diet of tea and biscuits.

George is typical of thousands of elderly people around the country who stop eating properly in their old age. For many of them, their only regular source of nutrition is a daily delivery from meals on wheels, usually of leathery beef and stewed vegetables. It's hardly appetising, and it's perhaps no coincidence that frail old ladies often have well-fed dogs.

Meals on wheels have been stuck in this institutional mould for years: the elderly are not prone to complaining, for fear of having the service taken away. However, a combination of Community Care legislation to improve standards, new cooking techniques and the arrival of a German company called apetito, which has been supplying community meals in Europe since 1958, is bringing a slow revolution to the meals on wheels business.

Fourteen local authorities in the UK now use apetito, and a number of others operate similar services offered by frozen food suppliers. The London Borough of Lambeth is among those who use the apetito system.

It has recently introduced a daily menu, which offers a choice from two hot meals or a salad. It also offers a range of cultural foods, including West Indian, Asian vegetarian and Vietnamese. For the most able and mobile meals on wheels recipients, the borough is piloting deliveries of frozen meals.

Customers choose their meals from a brochure which lists 60 main courses. Each is illustrated with a photograph and accompanied by colour-coded nutritional information, enabling those needing low-cholesterol or diabetic meals, for example, to identify which are suitable.

When the week's supply of frozen meals is delivered, the customer places an order for the following week. Each person is supplied with a table- top freezer and a steamer in which to reheat the meals.

The meals are produced, according to apetito UK general manager David Jackson, in "large, factory-organised kitchens by experienced, qualified chefs. Our parent company has a production site in north-west Germany which produces half a million meals per day." The more traditional English meals and desserts are made in Devon and Hull.

However, Jackson is under no illusion that his service will entirely supersede traditional meals on wheels. "There will always be a need for a hot meals service, for the bedridden and for those who couldn't cope with the reheating," he says.

Yet the choice on offer makes the service attractive even for people whose movement is severely restricted. Freda Bond (above), 66, has a heart condition and limited use of her hands following a stroke. She relies on a walking frame to move around her Dover flat, but values her independence.

"This is a marvellous system for me," she says, demonstrating how she removes her meal from the freezer with a gripping aid. "And the steamer is easy to use - just like a kettle."