The birds were singing, and a lawn mower hummed loudly close by when Nancy Carleton greeted Lynn Rowe, her reliable Meals on Wheels driver for the last two years, last Friday.

Carleton, homebound due to a broken foot, answered Rowe’s knock wearing a sweatshirt that matched the pink blooms hanging in the doorway of her mother-in-law apartment on Main Street.

Carleton is one of Milton’s 45 Meals on Wheels recipients and one of seven on Rowe’s bimonthly route. He picks up another route on off-weeks and even more still when the meal delivery program needs it.

That scenario is becoming more common, said Christine Moldovan, Age Well’s nutrition director in Chittenden, Grand Isle, Franklin and Addison counties.

Lynn Rowe of Milton (left) hands a Meals on Wheels bag to recipient Nancy Carleton on Main Street last week. (Courtney Lamdin | Milton Independent)

“Life changes, whether [our drivers] got a job or they’ve had an illness or injury,” she said. “Life gets in the way, and they have to give up volunteering.”

When fully staffed, Milton’s Meals on Wheels program relies on 20 volunteers to fulfill its four routes, delivered Monday through Friday. Today, they’re down five drivers, a quarter of its roster, Moldovan said.

The organization recently sent out a plea for more drivers, and it was timely: May is Older Americans Month, and this year’s theme of “Engage at Every Age” is apropos for Meals on Wheels drivers. Many are older Americans themselves who may be their client’s only reliable social connection.

“They always say it’s more than a meal,” Moldovan said. “It clearly is more than a meal. Sometimes the volunteer is the only visitor that stops in to see that person.”

But Milton’s drivers are getting stretched. Last Friday, two volunteers from Essex stepped in to fill a vacancy, picking up the meals from Ted Beaudoin’s farmstand just before 10 a.m. Beaudoin started Milton’s program in 2000.

“I remember going by and seeing the Milton meals being delivered in the dead of winter,” Rowe reflected. “He was always out there.”

Meals on Wheels recipient Rudy Dallier is pictured on his Main St. porch. (Courtney Lamdin | Milton Independent)

Rowe, 67, is a 30-year Milton resident who hails from Pennsylvania and remembers the impact the program made on his parents.

His father is now deceased, and his 94-year-old mother has Alzheimer’s and lives in an assisted living facility 500 miles away. Rowe can only visit twice a year and relies on the “angel” from his mother’s church who visits her frequently. He sees the helper as a form of good karma from his volunteerism.

“If you do something good, it comes back to you,” he said, motoring his seafoam Ford Focus onto Middle Road. “That’s another reason to do [this].”

Drivers like Rowe don’t get mileage or gas reimbursement, and Rowe doesn’t keep track.

“I suppose you could do it for tax reasons,” he said, turning onto Route 7, “but I do it for the fun, or to give something back.”

It’s clear his clients appreciate the food and the company. Ann Terry, who lives on Meadow Road, relies on the service because she’s blind in her left eye and can’t drive.

“They’re really nice, some of the drivers,” Terry said.

“Do you want me to turn my back so you can tell her the truth?” Rowe joked, tossing them both into laughter.

Back on Main Street, Carleton called for her son’s dog to come sit with her as she mused about Meals on Wheels. Her apartment doesn’t have a stove, so she can’t cook hot food, she said.

“The only family I have is my son, and I’m not having them cook for me,” she said. “They do a lot for me as it is. I just make my own lunch, and I eat these so it’s good for me.”

Meals on Wheels offerings provide one-third of the recommended dietary allowance for people 60 and older. Federal guidelines require a protein, a cup and a half of fruit and vegetables, two ounces of whole grains and a calcium-rich food, Moldovan said.

Age Well recently contracted with a single food vendor – Lindley Food Service in Rutland – to provide meals starting in early July 1. The meals, which will no longer come hot, will be more consistent and tailored to what Moldovan calls “therapeutic diets,” including gluten-free and texture modified.

The idea is to provide healthy food to seniors. Hunger Free Vermont says 7 percent of the state’s population over 60 are food insecure. They’re also more likely to be diabetic and have depression and limited daily activities, the nonprofit says.

Moldovan said it’s challenging for seniors to cook for themselves, particularly if they’re used to cooking for an entire family.

“All of a sudden you’re on your own,” she said. “You don’t feel like cooking a pot roast or a roast turkey.

“Those types of things are real,” she continued. “If they can’t do it themselves, they might not get a meal.”

Rowe said Meals on Wheels drivers can make a direct impact on their communities. He also gives to national charities – and delivers 10 cans of spaghetti sauce to the food shelf every week – but thinks the Age Well gig is an easy and enjoyable way to help out.

He’s tried to recruit drivers, too, telling them it only takes about an hour per route, a bit longer if there’s bad weather or if you stay and chat awhile.

But Milton is a large geographic area, and he recognizes that might turn some people off. One of his routes takes him down by Clay Point Road in Colchester, a bit of a haul from the Milton village.

Moldovan said Age Well helps potential drivers find a route that works for them and their schedule, and for that, Rowe is thankful. He and his wife are planning an RV trip to Maine, and he gave Meals on Wheels plenty of notice to fill his route, a favor he’s paid to other Milton drivers in the past.

“I’m going to be 68, and it’s kinda like life creeps up on you,” he said. “You keep thinking, well, I’ll do it when I’m older. All of a sudden you look in the mirror [and say], ‘Well wait a minute, I am older.’”