LEE COUNTY • The waitlist for Meals on Wheels of Lee County continues growing as COVID-19 magnifies the need for food security.

Meals on Wheels delivers hot meals to seniors Monday through Friday. Ashley McDaniel, executive director of NextAge Mississippi, said the program has been able to maintain a good base of volunteers and had a lot of substitutes volunteer to cover routes, but said they receive daily calls from those seeking aid.

“A lot of our elders are not leaving their homes during this time. They are sheltering in place, so these meals are more important now than they’ve ever been,” McDaniel said.

Meals on Wheels currently covers 11 routes, each serving anywhere from 12 to 15 people. The organization serves 150 seniors yearly and tries to keep all routes full. Meals on Wheels had approximately 105 people on the waitlist last year, but McDaniel said the waitlist grows each month as COVID-19 continues.

In order to start an additional route, however, Meals on Wheels must raise enough donations to cover the costs of funding a route. On average, it can take $1,000 to $1,200 to feed one elder for a year, meaning that a route with elders can cost anywhere from $12,000 to $18,000.

“That’s why we ask for donations, because we’re feeding 150 elders, costing us at least $150,000 just to feed them,” McDaniel said.

The program has received some funding during this time through a COVID-19 Support Fund disbursement of $10,000, but McDaniel said the crisis occurred during a time that is critical to their fundraising. As part of Lent season, Meals on Wheels often has special ceremonies and lunches with area churches to fundraise. Due to the coronavirus, they were only able to host three and didn’t meet their goal of $20,000 to $30,000.

McDaniel said Meals on Wheels is planning to host a yard sale of donations in July to help fundraise. The Meals on Wheels team also had ideas for new fundraisers that now have to be put on hold.

“We’re going to have to rethink and redo the donations when all this is over with, go back to the drawing board and see what we can start over,” McDaniel said.

There have been no shortages of volunteers, McDaniel said. While some older volunteers are staying home, many people have stepped up to volunteer due to being home from work and school, and many employees at Traceway Retirement Community have assisted in keeping the program running.

For the safety of their clients, meals are not bagged individually to prevent totes from going in and out. Volunteers wear gloves and a mask, and meals are delivered to volunteers’ cars rather than having them come inside.

The new guidelines for social distancing do present challenges to other aspects of the Meals on Wheels program. Often, volunteers use meal deliveries as a way to provide company, conversation and security checks. Additionally, McDaniel said several volunteers have years of experience and rely on their personal connections in order to help notify families and supervisors of concerns with elders.

“(Our volunteers) know people. They know when something is out of place, and COVID-19 has made it where we can’t go in the homes, so we can’t really do a security check,” McDaniel said. “We get to see them through the door, but we can’t go in the home, sit down and do a roundabout check with our eyes like we usually can.”

COVID-19 is highlighting the need for services addressing food insecurity, McDaniel said. With some of the calls they could not fill, she has tried to help them find local resources, such as local pantries, churches and feeding programs, but acknowledges that for many, the need for a hot meal is immediate.

“The need is huge. We have calls every day needing food, wanting food and they need it now. They don’t need a waitlist, they need a hot meal now,” McDaniel said. “A lot of people that call, they don’t have time to wait. It’s been a long time since they’ve had a hot meal. The need ... is out there, and it’s growing every year for elderlies just to get a hot meal.”

Meals on Wheels can be reached at its office number at 662-213-1614.

danny.mcarthur@journalinc.com

Twitter: @Danny_McArthur_

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