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Meals on Wheels Hampered by Coronavirus Outbreak

AARP, Major League Baseball pitch in with donations to help feed older adults

spinner image Leonard Guralnick delivers food to Michael Giggey, 55, at his apartment in Portland
Derek Davis/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic are the country's roughly 5,000 Meals on Wheels programs that deliver or serve meals to about 2.4 million older Americans each year. Officials at Meals on Wheels are grappling with twin challenges: an influx of older adults who are self-isolating due to the outbreak; and far fewer helping hands, since volunteers fear catching the virus that causes COVID-19.

Consider Florida's Volusia County, a retirement haven and home to Daytona Beach. About 1,000 older adults each week are served lunch at its seven so-called congregate dining programs, all of which have been closed as of March 16, says Penny Young-Carrasquillo of the Council on Aging of Volusia County. The facilities temporarily were shuttered on the advice of state and federal officials, she says.

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One of the lunchgoers is a 104-year-old man, Young-Carrasquillo says. Attendees either drive or are driven to the lunches. Donations are sought for the meals, but nobody who can't chip in is turned away.

Separately, Volusia County has a Meals on Wheels food-delivery program that last year handed out more than 178,000 meals to older adults, some extremely frail. Now, arrangements are being made for people to pick up food at drive-through sites, providing they have transportation. Additional in-home deliveries are slated for those who are unable to fetch the “grab-and-go” meals.

Young-Carrasquillo says a $50 internet donation just came in with a message: “I want to support Meals on Wheels as they provide food for seniors during this scary time of COVID-19.” She shared the note with colleagues, saying: “It almost made us cry.” Soon she'll make a public appeal for contributions.

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AARP, Major League Baseball make big donations

Others, in fact, are stepping up to the plate. On Monday, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association gave $500,000 to Meals on Wheels America. The two organizations gave another $500,000 to Feeding America, which supports food banks.

On Tuesday, AARP announced a $250,000 contribution to Meals on Wheels America to help provide in-home meals to the most at-risk population.

Meals on Wheels America is a trade association that represents about 1,000 of the country's senior-nutrition providers.

More federal funding is on the table

The programs rely on government funds and private dollars, and this week there's a bid in the Senate to give them another $250 million as part of a coronavirus relief measure. The House already has approved the funding.

Senior-nutrition funding, through another measure called the Older Americans Act, is more than $738 million in the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30; $485 million goes to the congregate meal programs and $253 million to home-delivered nutrition services.

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On Monday, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), wrote Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asking that states, coping with the closures of senior congregate meal sites, be given greater flexibility to use public dollars for home-delivered services. He agreed, an aide to Collins says.

"In the face of this public health challenge ... Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) across the country are struggling to continue to run programs that meet the nutritional needs of older Americans,” Collins, who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging, wrote in her letter.

At Meals on Wheels America, spokeswoman Jenny Young says particular attention is focused on states such as California, where adults 65-plus have been urged to self-isolate.

Volunteers are older, too

Complicating the scenario is the lack of volunteers, since nearly three-quarters of Meals on Wheels volunteers are at least 55 years old, Young says. “We're seeing our volunteer base dwindle because ... it's not safe for them to be out and about, either,” she adds.

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Grab-and-go meals are one solution as congregate dining centers close, according to Young, the group's vice president of communications.

But it is not a one-size-fits-all remedy, notes the spokeswoman, who says, “Every program is adapting differently, and they're adapting every day."

Meals on Wheels America has set up a COVID-19 Response Fund to collect donations for local programs. Meantime, the national group, based in Arlington, Virginia, urges everybody to take four steps to help keep older adults safe:

  • Follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and take precautions around high-risk individuals.
  • Reach out to your local Meals on Wheels provider to find out their specific needs.
  • Call, email or text your at-risk loved ones to check in with them.
  • Contact your elected officials to make sure older adults are not forgotten.

In places such as Florida's Volusia County, people often retire while in good health and leave behind places they lived for years — and sometimes are away from close relatives, according to Young-Carrasquillo. For an older American, all it takes is a fall, a financial problem, an illness or injury or the death of a spouse, and “we start seeing a downward spiral,” she observes.

Its Council on Aging strives to help people live independently in their homes, she says. “We're just trying to keep up with their basic needs: food and proper medical care. We want to make sure those who need feeding continue to get fed."

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