What’s a simpler idea than Meals on Wheels? Home bound, frail people who are struggling to remain independent sign up with Mid-America Nutrition Program. A brief assessment is done to gather pertinent information. Each day, volunteers or paid staff come by and drop off a hot lunch. Donations, added to some federal and state dollars, cover the cost.

At Mid-America Nutrition’s kitchens each morning 800-plus meals are prepared to be served to 800-plus individuals across a 3,600-square-mile area. More than half of those meals will be delivered to someone’s home by a friendly volunteer.

Now some statistics: A recent survey tells us that, for 80 percent of those receiving Meals on Wheels, it is their most important meal of the day — often the only meal. Fifty percent report they don’t see anyone else most days.

Meals on Wheels is so much more than a hot meal. Just as important is that face-to-face social interaction. On those occasions when they don’t open the door, a series of phone calls ensues. We’ve had people yell that they can’t get out of their chair or that they are on the floor and can’t get up. It doesn’t happen just in commercials.

Meals on Wheels advocates have always believed that something this fundamental — a hot meal, a greeting, another set of eyes — can help keep people in their homes longer. Recently, a couple of Brown University health researchers crunched the numbers from Medicare, states and counties, the federal Administration on Aging and more than 16,000 nursing homes from 2000 to 2009, publishing their findings in the journal of Health Services Research.

The connection they discovered between home-delivered meals and the nursing home population will come as welcome news to Meals on Wheels supporters: States that spent more than the average to be sure meals are available, showed a greater reduction in the proportion of nursing home residents who didn’t need to be there. The researchers call these people “low-care” residents. Most people living in nursing homes require around-the-clock skilled care, and policymakers have been pushing to find other ways to care for those who don’t. Still, in 2010, about 12 percent of long-term nursing home patients didn’t need this level of care.

Vincent Mor, co-author of the study explained, “They’re not fully dependent. They could be cared for in a community setting, whether that’s assisted living or with a few hours of home care.”

That’s how most seniors want to live. We need to reserve nursing homes for those who can’t survive any other way. Sadly, political budget cutters don’t seem to love Meals on Wheels as they should. For each $25 a state spends on home-delivered meals each year per person older than 65, the low-care nursing home population decreases by a percentage point, the researchers calculated. That’s a pretty amazing return on investment.

“We spend a lot on crazy medical interventions that don’t have as much effect as a $5 meal,” Dr. Mor concluded. With this data, “we’re able to see this relationship for the first time.”

Sadly, though, appropriations for home-delivered meals are not increasing. Across the nation, more than 868,000 people in 2010 received meals (the latest numbers available). Federal funding through the Older American’s Act has been flat for most of the decade, while food and gas cost — and the number of people in need — have risen.

Given current budget pressures, program directors hope they can just hold the line (the “sequester” cuts to the federal budget are still looming unless Congress and the White House can reach an agreement on the debt limit and a spending plan). In 2012, Mid-America Nutrition Program saw an increase in demand for home-delivered meals but a decline in donations for those meals. Costs continue to climb. Without more federal or state money, we need to accept that we will have to provide less meals and that means seniors going without.

March is the month the Older American’s Act was signed into action. All across the nation, Meals on Wheels providers will celebrate “March for Meals” to raise awareness of this valuable service. Locally, Mid-America Nutrition Program has invited our Franklin County commissioners to deliver Meals on Wheels on March 20. In addition, Mid-America Nutrition Program will play host to a dinner and pie auction to benefit Meals on Wheels March 23. Money raised will help end senior hunger here in East Central Kansas. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (785) 242-8341.

Sharon Geiss is director of Mid-America Nutrition Program, Ottawa.