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Volunteers Needed for Expanded Meals on Wheels

U.S. Navy

Having enrolled more than 300 people for an expanded Meals on Wheels program the past two weeks in EscaRosa, there’s now a call for more volunteers to deliver them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created the need for hundreds of additional meals, says Will Wirth, program manager at the Council on Aging of West Florida. But it’s not the sole reason for the jump – enter a partnership between COA and Primal Nosh.

“Primal Nosh is a food preparation service on the west side of [Pensacola], where they make pre-packaged meals,” said program manager Will Wirth. “[At] the announcement of the partnership, the eligible seniors who are 60 and over read it, they called us to find out how to take advantage of the situation.”

Currently the Council on Aging has about 500 volunteers in the feeding program, but Wirth says there’s room for more people and wheels as the pandemic rolls on.

“At the rate we’re going, we’re adding about 50 people a day in new calls; so we’re probably looking for about 20 to 25 new volunteers,” Wirth said. “I didn’t really think about it until [coronavirus] actually got here, and then it was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to need extra drivers.’”

Those volunteering for Meals on Wheels will be provided training, and flexible hours.

“It’s a volunteer enrollment form to fill out; we do an orientation about Meals on Wheels,” said Wirth. “Then, I turn it over to the Meals on Wheels coordinator and she’ll give them a call and let them know what day they can come down and ride with one of the seasoned drivers for Meals on Wheels.” 

Credit Council on Aging of West Florida
During the pandemic, Council on Aging has ensured seniors in need were fed with to-go meals available at several sites in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties.

Prospective drivers will also undergo a Level-1 background check that’s commonly used to check a person’s identity and employment history.

“But other than that, as long as you have a vehicle and you pass the background check, we’ll take you,” said Wirth. “In Escambia County we have deliveries Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; in Santa Rosa County Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.”

Meals on Wheels has also pretty much come out of the funding scare of a few years ago, when the federal government threatened to cut money for the national program, according to COA’s Josh Newby.

“All in all, we have been pledged $1.3 million, and that has been distributed to us via the Older Americans Act – which is our primary federal funding,” Newby said. “We have received the lion’s share of that money. We’re still waiting on a small portion of it.”

But the feds pony up only about three percent of overall funding, through federal block grant programs administered by the states. By contrast, 84% comes from individuals and grants from corporations and/or foundations.

Meanwhile, Newby says the calls keep coming in from new applicants.

“Like Will said, we’re getting between 50 to 75 calls a day; we do expect that to peak here pretty quickly,” said Newby. “A, because the publicity is sort of at a critical mass right now. And also hopefully we are making a dent in the population that actually needs those meals.”

Part of the challenge of getting meals to clients is replacing some volunteers who are taking a break because of the pandemic.

“Because they may be immune-suppressed or for whatever reason,” Newby said. “So, the increased Meals on Wheels demand – coupled with the decrease in volunteers because of the virus – has sort of led to this critical need that we see right now.”

As far as actually making the deliveries, Newby says that’s also changed in the wake of the coronavirus. 

Before the outbreak...

“The drivers, they wouldn’t wear face masks, they wouldn’t wear gloves, they would deliver the meals and actually go into the clients’ home,” said Newby. “They would perform what’s called a ‘welfare check’ – make sure that the lights were still on, that it’s adequately cool in the summer, that there’s no sort of offensive smells that may lead them to believe something is wrong.”

And now…

“They are now wearing masks; they are now wearing gloves, and they no longer go into the home unless absolutely necessary,” Newby said. “For example, if the client is handicapped, what they’ll do is leave [the meals] on the front porch to maintain that social distancing.”

Those interested in volunteering for the Meals on Wheels Program can call the Council on Aging of West Florida at (850) 266-2518, or visit coawfla.org.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.