Protesters opposed to replacing meals on wheels with frozen meals supplied in advance have been assured they will not be forced on people who are unable to cope.
The council’s community care director Christine Ferguson also dismissed claims that the frozen food will necessarily have to be imported from one of the specialist producers in the south of England. She said the council was months away from awarding any contract and it was feasible that the meals could be prepared in Shetland by local entrepreneurs or even in-house by the council.
She told The Shetland Times: “There is nothing to stop a local provider expressing an interest in that. There is certainly no done deal at all and no preconceived ideas as to who might be a supplier.”
At the moment a “very small” number of people in Shetland already receive frozen meals, made by the council, due to problems providing them with traditional meals on wheels.
“For people to assume that we are going to go with a big contract with a firm in England – there’s nothing decided,” she said. However the council will be legally bound to go out to competitive tender for any major contract.
Last month councillors agreed to try to save £250,000 from the annual spend of about £600,000 on the meals service by switching from hot food to frozen meals. The decision was taken in the absence of any publicly available information about the proposed new system or the pros and cons of the change. Councillors were assured that it did not mean a reduction in service levels, only “providing meals in different ways”.
Mrs Ferguson said this week the switch was not now likely to happen within six months. But the charge for the two-course meals on wheels is to rise substantially from 1st April from £2.85 to £3.50.
Most of the £250,000 savings are expected to be made from slashing transport costs, ending the use of taxis which can drive the cost of a single meal “significantly higher” than £25, Mrs Ferguson said. In the past approaches have been made to the voluntary sector to take on deliveries but without success. A new attempt is to be made to see if volunteers could help in some way.
Council employees’ income will be cut too among the cooks and helpers in the care centres and school canteens where the hot meals are produced.
The aim is to at least halve the average cost of a meal, although Mrs Ferguson admitted that at this stage the council is still trying to work out accurate figures for the unit cost of meals. A study several years ago before fuel prices rocketed showed an average of £23-£25 per meal, she said. Even five years ago the meals were costing up to £22.50 each, plus the unknown cost of managing the service.
For frozen meals to be introduced, the council has admitted it may have to buy freezers and microwave ovens for some customers, or at least help them buy the machines if they cannot afford them. At this stage Mrs Ferguson said she had no idea what numbers that might involve, but added: “I should be very surprised if there are very many people in this day and age that don’t have up-to-date kitchen equipment and many I imagine will have a freezer and microwave.”
She appeared to backpedal from the proposal agreed by the council by suggesting that hot meals may be continued in some areas and that a mix of different food services, including lunch clubs and more meals offered in care centres, was a possible outcome from the in-depth assessment of the service that has just kicked off.
“We’re really assessing our options and frozen meals is quite a common provision across the rest of the UK. So that is one we are certainly looking at and we imagine will meet the needs of many customers but it won’t be right for everybody.”
On the mainland several large companies dominate the market, including Apetito’s franchise operator Wiltshire Farm Foods, Oakhouse Foods and Cheats. They offer vast menus of up to 300 dishes and desserts for delivery free anywhere in the country, although probably not including Shetland. Many of the meals can be cooked in conventional ovens, not just microwaves.
The meals on wheels service is intended for the frail and elderly, sick or disabled who are unable to cook for themselves and have nobody to assist them. Demand has risen to somewhere over 500 people due to the increasingly elderly population and the new policy of helping people stay longer in their own homes instead of moving into care centres. However, some home care clients require a carer to visit at meal times and prepare food, which means meals on wheels are not needed.
Mrs Ferguson said: “The bottom line in terms of re-assuring people is that it will absolutely be down to their individual needs, what they need and what they can manage. We certainly wouldn’t be looking to introduce if for somebody that couldn’t manage it.”
The campaign to halt frozen meals, or to keep hot meals on wheels, has been less visible than those against other council cuts and charges, such as the threat hanging over the Freefield lunch club in Lerwick.
But Doreen Williamson, who started the campaign to save the club, is also active against frozen meals. She said the idea was “a no-go for nearly everybody”.
The full version of this article is available in today’s Shetland Times.