Meals on wheels becomes a greater challenge when the debate over daily or weekly delivery is complicated by a wide multicultural mix in the client base. There may be up to half-a-dozen different ethnic diets to cater for in large cities and there is little point in offering cottage pie to someone who has spent a lifetime eating rice and curry.
Like the whole UK population, the age profile of the ethnic minorities is getting older. The young people who arrived from around the Commonwealth in the 1950s have matured into a new older generation. As in the British population as a whole, many more middle-aged women now go out to work, compared with a generation ago. They are presenting new and growing challenges for the meals-on-wheels service.
Bradford City Metropolitan District Council, which has a large Muslim community, supplies its halal requirement from a central production unit (CPU)at Laisterdyke, Bradford - built in 1980 to supply school meals.
Roger Sheard, business development manager for Bradford's education contract services, explains: "Laisterdyke was developed principally to find an alternative way of feeding children at Bradford schools with poor or no kitchens. Cook-chill was seen as the solution - it was cheap and flexible - and it has proved successful."
Laisterdyke is a cook-chill and cook-freeze factory, turning out 16,000 prepared meals a day. The unit supplies 5,000 halal meat meals a week - of which 3,000 go to schools and 2,000 are taken by social services for the meals on wheels and luncheon clubs service. Laisterdyke also sells another 3,500 halal meat meals a week outside its own area.
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets used to tackle its meals-on-wheels provision in the same way, from school kitchens, but times have changed, as education contract services director Isobel Cattermole explains: "Now that schools have their own delegated budgets, many of them run their own kitchens and generally won't want to cater for others."
Where school kitchens are still run by the local authority, these can sometimes be used to service luncheon clubs, which operate five days a week like the schools, but they don't match the seven-day requirement of meals on wheels.
Hence, Tower Hamlets operates two dedicated kitchens purely for community meals. This takes three forms: the council supplies meals to luncheon clubs at nine community centres around the borough; hot meals are delivered daily to people's homes; and the council also runs a frozen-meals service, delivering a week's supply of meals to be regenerated by the customer at home. The main ethnic requirements are for Asian, Chinese and halal foods.
There is a religious side to catering for ethnic minorities, in particular with kosher meals for the Jewish community and halal for Muslims. Both of these systems involve strict rules governing the use and cleaning of utensils. For example, the kosher rules require separate utensils for meat, dairy and other categories of food - and these are even stored in separate areas in the kitchen. Halal, similarly, stipulates that there must be no cross-contamination from haram (non-halal) foods.
Both systems also lay down rules about the slaughter of animals - itself a religious ritual which must involve a rabbi or imam. For many local authorities the most practical approach is to buy in kosher or halal meals from one of the specialist suppliers.
In Bradford, however, which has a sizeable Muslim community, the local authority has been providing its own halal meals since 1980, when Laisterdyke was opened.
"We've worked with the Council for Mosques to develop the service," says Sheard. "We use Muslim chefs, working in a separate area at Laisterdyke, with separate equipment and storage."
The motive for centralising the halal food preparation at Laisterdyke was originally to meet schools' needs, and the meals-on-wheels service is a beneficiary of that.
Glasgow City Council also started its halal service in schools and expanded from there. Originally, the city bought in 180 ethnic meals a year from Laisterdyke. Three years ago Rajendra Prasad, area manager of Glasgow's catering and cleaning services, initiated the formation of Asian Cuisine as part of the direct services organisation. It operates from St John's Secondary School, Glasgow, where its CPU is an unused training kitchen. Now, many of the dishes from the Asian Cuisine schools menu have been incorporated into the city's meals-on-wheels offering.