The number of councils providing Meals on Wheels to vulnerable older people has dropped below 50 per cent for the first time.
Devon County Council has not provided the service for a few years, and the trend is a similar picture across the South West with only 41 per cent of local authorities now offering Meals on Wheels, compared with 71 per cent two years ago.
The figures have been released by the National Association of Care Catering who says under-investment is putting the elderly at risk and will place unnecessary pressure on the NHS because meals services help prevent hospital admissions and extend the time residents can live at home.
Better nutritional care has been identified as the third largest source of cost savings to the NHS by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). The new statistics reveal the average cost of a two-course lunch is £4.30.
Concerned about the growing number of councils no longer providing meals on wheels, NACC chairman Neel Radia said: “This is a very worrying trend. Meals on wheels is so much more than just a meal – it’s a vital preventative service, and prevention is better than cure.
“It helps reduce unnecessary malnutrition and malnutrition-related illnesses and is a lifeline to those who are alone and isolated with no support.
“Meals on Wheel services can include wellbeing and safety checks. It’s about looking out for people in our communities who have contributed throughout their lives, and doing it in a human and caring way.
“We understand that local authorities have a problem with social care funding and we are not placing the blame solely with them. Council budgets are under immense pressure but withdrawing a service that can help keep someone out of hospital is a false economy in the long run because unnecessary hospital stays and bed blocking are a huge problem for the NHS.
Devon County Council says it decided to stop directly commissioning a meals on wheels service a few years ago following a thorough look at the availability of hot and nutritional meals in Devon, and how easy it is to access them.
A council spokesperson said: “Good nutrition is essential, and in our day to day contact with people who receive support from us, we make sure that a good meal is something that they can either prepare themselves or that they can have access to.
“Devon is a big county, with a lot of voluntary sector and private sector organisations that provide a really wide range of services that help people stay living in their own homes, including arrangements for home-delivered meals.
“We think that’s really important, which is why we take the time to help signpost people to those services.”