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How Meals on Wheels serves record numbers of elderly amid inflation, other pandemic hurdles

Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- As many Americans resume some sense of normalcy in daily life, a large sector of the population hit hard by the pandemic requires more assistance than ever and nonprofit groups are working tirelessly to deliver essential help for the increasing number of seniors in need.

Hundreds of thousands of older adults across the country struggled with hunger and isolation before COVID-19, and Meals on Wheels said it has doubled down its efforts to meet growing demand even as compounding issues of inflation, food costs and gas prices rock its channels of support and funds.

The Older Americans Act (OAA) Nutrition Programs, which celebrated 50 years this month, provides grants to states to help support nutrition services for people over the age of 60 throughout the country. Meals on Wheels President and CEO Ellie Hollander called it "foundational financial federal support" for its more than 5,000 community programs, but told Good Morning America why especially in the wake of the pandemic and up against new hurdles, it's not enough.

"What people may not know is that Meals on Wheels is a public-private partnership, so the federal government provides approximately 40% of the seed funding -- but we need individuals, we need corporations and foundations to step up to the plate to help fill that gap," Hollander said. "Quite frankly, the funding has never been adequate to meet the growing demand, the increase in the senior population, not to mention inflation and, most recently, the cost of food and gasoline. Being that we do deliver the price of gas really does impact our operations."

Hollander noted that Congress stepped up in the short term and delivered emergency funding to ensure seniors were not left behind during the pandemic, but said "the last amount of funding we got was a year ago in March 2021."

"Congress finally passed the appropriations bills for 2022 and we were expecting, given the huge surge in need and more meals being served to more seniors, that both the House and Senate would approve a large increase in spending," she explained. "However, Congress only approved a 1.5% increase -- which is completely inadequate and we're very concerned about a services cliff nationwide."

As of 2022, eight out of 10 of the organization's more than 5,000 local programs serve more home-delivered meals than they did prior to March 2020, Meals on Wheels reported in a recent fact sheet.

"The pandemic, I think, really created a lot of hardships for seniors and threw a whole new pipeline of older adults into homebound status," Hollander said. "Our programs at the local level have been stepping up building capacity on a regular basis, not really knowing where the funding is coming from, but wanting to be sure that no senior is left behind."

Logistics amid pandemic, inflation, rising fuel costs and disruptions in food supply

Holly Hagler's program in Orange County served 10,000 people a year prior to the pandemic -- 90% of whom live below the senior poverty level -- with a million home delivered meals and hot lunches for group settings in senior centers annually.

"We went from serving about 5,000 hot meals per week to serving 30,000 frozen meals, a week," Hagler told GMA of the surge when the program converted to grab-and-go. "It's a 600% increase so the cost of it all has just been huge. We were spending about $3 million annually on just the raw food costs and on packaging supplies for the food. And as a combination of both the increase in volume and inflation, we're serving more than 5 million meals annually. For us, a 10% increase in food costs equals, an average impact of $400,000 or more a year. That equates to about 75,000 fewer meals that we can serve."

"Older adults have been hit the hardest by COVID and now they are really getting hit extra hard," she said, adding that "a lot of them can't afford to come to the senior center everyday anymore to get a hot meal because they're living on fixed income with health care costs, gasoline and food prices, and they're concerned."

She said her program's fleet of trucks that hit the road daily have been slammed by the soaring gas prices in just the past few months.

"Our gasoline bill in January was $9,500 and now we're expecting it to be $12,500 this month, maybe pushing $13,000," Hagler said. "For us that annual impact is 9,000 meals. So everything boils down to how many fewer meals can we serve because of these rising prices."

San Antonio Meals on Wheels CEO Vinsen Faris, who has been involved with the organization since 1988, told GMA that "optimism was growing coming into the spring after the very, very tough two years we've had. However, with rising gas prices suddenly everything is getting turned on its head again."

"When you have an organization like this that relies on so many volunteers -- to deliver meals using their own vehicles and their own fuel to see those prices going up at the pumps -- we started hearing from volunteers and they're concerned," he said. "I had a lady this week in a Prius of all things, when I was greeting her in the pickup line and she said 'I just don't know about these prices.' So it's been tough. Now with the fuel costs rising we're going to see additional cost pressure on the food products themselves, plus our cost of fuel here just in the delivery of meals that we undertake."

Another large hurdle currently facing Hagler's program is that "people working from home that volunteered have returned to the office."

"A lot of cities stepped up huge in our area and put their recreation staff in vehicles delivering the meals that we provide. But they're opening back up and called back into regular jobs, so we're really at a critical point here because of inflation and challenges with staffing -- I've never seen turnover like this in my entire career of 35 plus years."

Another critical challenge Faris has faced in San Antonio amid the pandemic "has been the wonkiness of the food supply chain."

"That has impacted the food products that we could get in here to prepare because sometimes it was just, 'surprise that's not coming in' and we're not going to get it," he said. "The biggest problem has been the cost increase. Since the start of the pandemic our actual meal cost of increased about 20%," he said of their program that operates its own kitchen and is in the process of completing a new 44,000 square foot facility slated to open in October. "We're producing 50,000 meals a week -- so it's really high volume but the cost has put a strain on it."

Bigger than food deliveries

One silver lining Faris has found from all of this is the spotlight the pandemic has put on isolation and the need to look out for seniors.

"We've actually increased the number of clients that we were serving pre pandemic by almost 80% and it's that public support that has allowed us to do that," he said of the now 4,500 meals served daily compared to 2,500 before the pandemic. "We are just now getting back to pre-pandemic levels of volunteers ... we have more meals delivered here in San Antonio, Texas, by individual volunteers than we have ever had in our 40 plus year history."

"With older adults it's not just income, it's isolation, which is probably the single greatest risk factor they have because they're not connected to resources. It is lack of capacity, whether it's their mobility, declining cognitive capacity or just losing interest in cooking," Hagler explained. "We really need people to stand up for seniors."

Faris echoed a similar sentiment adding that "the more we can shine the light on our older adults who are having challenges -- I believe that the public is going to respond and do the right thing."

"We have to pay it back, these are the people who made it possible for all of us to be here today. They were our teachers in school, they were our firemen. Whoever they were, doing whatever in the community, they made it all possible for us, so we need to be taking care of them," he said.

How Americans can take action

Hollander said there are three main ways to support The Meals on Wheels America organization.

First, donations to a local program. "A little goes a long way. This is when individuals can truly be heroes too," she said.

Second, offer to volunteer. "It doesn't mean that you need to be delivering meals, it can be skilled volunteering. Making phone calls or writing cards to let seniors know that someone's thinking of them. That made a big difference during the pandemic."

Third, advocate. "Particularly with federal funding not keeping pace with need and the gap growing further between those in need and not being served it's very important for people to step up and advocate for more funding for this critically important 50-year proven program."

Hollander, who has been in her role for more than nine years shared what she calls "the best fact that says it all: we can provide a senior with Meals on Wheels for an entire year for the same cost as being in the hospital for one day or a nursing home for 10."

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