Along For The Ride

By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Peter Tung

Austin’s Meals on Wheels discovers a new vehicle for change

Delivery Route—June 2008

Lunch is basic—spaghetti, a meatball, mixed vegetables, an apple and milk or orange juice—but the people who planned and cooked it also meticulously tweaked it for diabetics and even for those who have trouble chewing. It’s delivered right to the door, hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

Parking her car in front of the first house on the route, Diane Papillion reads up on the woman she’s about to see. Each stop comes with its own special instructions. “Skim milk,” she reads. “Knock on door, announce ‘Meals on Wheels’…wait, I know this woman. She used to be a reverend. I wonder how she’s getting along.”

 
The once-well-kept house is slowly wearing down. Old clothes fill what used to be a carport. Vintage iron work and plastic flowers decorate the windows. The most modern touches date back to about 1968.
 
The reverend, an elderly woman in slippers and a housecoat, unlocks first an inner and then an outer door.
 
“I don’t sit in here with my door not locked,” she says, in a fine preaching voice. “Too much a-goin’ on out there, you know.” Then she excuses herself to eat what may be her only hot meal of the day.
 
Today, Diane is just filling in for the regular volunteer driver. Officially, she’s the agency’s director of nutrition services, but she enjoys getting out among clients and checking on the programs that justify her employer’s full name: Meals on Wheels and More—the “more” extending to such services as rides to medical appointments, small home repairs and even volunteers who telephone clients each week, just to check in. Diane’s work involves a lot more than recommended daily allowances, and that’s how she likes it.
 
“I grew up poor and we didn’t always have enough food,” she says. “It made me very concerned about food justice.”
A licensed dietician with degrees in nutrition and public health, Diane took on the mission to “create change for as many people as possible”—eventually making her way to the world of nonprofits. “I’m a grass-roots, ground-level, create-change-from-the-bottom-up person,” she says. “This is what I enjoy.”
 
And it’s why she began driving a route whenever someone canceled, usually two or three times per month. Sometimes her husband John came with her—the job went faster with two people, and it gave them a chance to talk.
 
Now and again, the topic of bicycles came up. “The routes were here on the East Side, so close to the office,” Diane recalls, “and we both wondered if we could do them just as easily on bikes.”
 
Last spring, that was a pertinent question. Rising food and fuel costs were biting into the fixed incomes of retired Meals on Wheels volunteers, and several were forced to give up their routes. Again, John considered the use of bicycles for delivery. Why spend lunch hour at a spinning class, he wondered, when you could do a good deed and get in a workout at the same time? Diane did a little research and discovered that such a program would be the first at any American Meals on Wheels. And when John’s employer, a software company that prefers to remain anonymous, put out a call for innovative philanthropy ideas, John proposed the bicycle pilot program and obtained a $10,000 grant. A group of his co-workers, not all of them cyclists, were happy to get involved.
 
Next, the Bicycle Sport Shop offered a discount on three Trek hybrid bikes, agreed to conduct bike safety trainings and found a local metal fabricator to build bike trailers capable of adapting to these or any bikes. Soup Peddler David Ansel shared his wisdom on how best to transport food on two wheels instead of four, and the scene was set. With new map-holders, custom pedals and helmets in place, John and his coworkers test-rode the tricked-out Treks around the office. A few wipeouts were reported near the file cabinets, but the equipment was more than sound.

TEST RUN—JuLY 2008

With the pilot’s launch two months away, the group meets to ride three possible routes in the Stone Gate and Springhill neighborhoods. Two riders arrive in full spandex, another rolls up in street clothes, on a beach cruiser. Armed with official maps—but no food or trailers—they plan to evaluate bike lanes, traffic, hills and whether routes can be completed in 60 to 90 minutes.
 
The humid, 101-degree afternoon proves to be challenging—not only for the cyclists, but for the many neighborhood residents living without air-conditioning. In the streets, people work on cars in varying states of repair, listen to music and run after kids. Small wooden farmhouses sit among newer ranch homes, some yards overgrown with weeds, some mowed with precision.
 
Pedaling up short, steep hills on streets with New Deal names like Eleanor and Delano, the riders are cheered on by two young guys in a loud car: “Do it, do it, do it!” Other people barely look up from their lawnmowers and coolers. Conversations will come later, when bikes bearing food have become a familiar sight.
 
Hunger is a concept that seems strangely un-American, and food insecurity a huge, unwieldy problem. But a few little solutions roll around every now and again—some requiring no more expertise than the ability to pedal and sweat.
That, these volunteers can do.

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The first three Meals on Wheels bicycle routes rolled out in September of 2008. By December, Diane Papillion hopes to expand to 12 routes serving 150 clients. Training bicycle volunteers takes just two hours, and costs are minimal. “With a bicycle,” Diane points out, “the carbon footprint, is, well, zero.” For more information on how to volunteer, call 512-476-6325 or go to mealsonwheelsandmore.org .