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Meals on Wheels Demand Increases During COVID-19

Since 1972, the Meals on Wheels program has delivered nutritious meals to seniors in Escambia County who are unable to prepare or access meals for themselves. The program uses an army of volunteers to bring recipients meals on a weekly basis.

In the past year, volunteers have been knocking on more doors because of COVID-19.

Steven and Nancy Buck began volunteering for Meals on Wheels a year ago as part of an active crew of just 35. They saw a need and signed up in October when COVID-19 cases were surging, as other volunteers withdrew from the program due to concerns about the pandemic.

“When the pandemic started, I felt like we should be doing something, we shouldn’t just be sitting at home worrying about ourselves, we should find some way to help,” said Mrs. Buck

While volunteers have come and gone for various reasons, those who are currently giving their time to the Meals on Wheels program are delivering to more seniors because of COVID-19.

“For those who are homebound and/or disabled, it’s literally sometimes the only food that they will eat throughout the day,” said Josh Newby, marketing communications director for Council on Aging West Florida. “It also provides the volunteers the opportunity to do a wellness check. When they drop the food off, they’re able to identify any issues or any challenges faced by the client that maybe weren’t there last time.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the country in the spring of 2020, Meals on Wheels in Escambia County saw a 30 percent increase in recipients. A year before the pandemic started, the program only had 222 clients. By April 2020, it had 411.

Although the majority of recipients are retirees who were not affected by job loss or unemployment, the demand for meals was high. Newby says the increase was largely attributed to the statewide lockdown in which supply chains in grocery stores were largely disrupted. This, in turn, led to food insecurity among those in need.

“Luckily, we were able to provide for that, both in terms of funding for the meals and volunteers willing to deliver those meals,” Newby said. “It’s since come down a little from there, but it is still higher than usual, but not as high as that 30% increase we saw initially.”

Last year’s federal CARES Act helped with the program’s funding. Newby says that if an increase in demand for Meals on Wheels services were to occur again this year, another increase in funding for the program will be needed.

“If we’re able to serve more people, we will certainly do so, but that remains to be seen,” Newby said. “We don’t want to have to count on any funding from Washington, that’s why we took these proactive steps to hopefully ensure that any subsequent spikes in COVID did not affect our client base.”

For instance, the program encourages all volunteers to be vaccinated. In the early days of the pandemic, they were also instructed to leave deliveries at the door to limit contact with clients.

Meals on Wheels is always looking for new volunteers. Volunteers Steven and Nancy Buck say their experience has been rewarding and satisfying.

“As long as we’re able to do something, get out and help somebody else, I’m so happy that we have the opportunity to do that,” said Mrs. Buck.

The Meals on Wheels program offers various breakfast, lunch, and dinner options. All meals meet the daily nutrition allowances set by the FDA. Seniors 60 years and older interested in receiving meals from the program should call the Elder Helpline at 850-494-7101.

Volunteering for Meals on Wheels is flexible and easy, and volunteers can set their own schedule. Those interested in volunteering should call the Council on Aging at 850-432-1475, or visit their website coawfla.org.

Hunter joined WUWF in 2021 as a student reporter.