Meals for the Elderly and Homebound: Food Insecurity, Part 4

Oct 22, 2015

More than 350,000 senior citizens in Virginia have trouble paying their basic costs of living, including meals. In the fourth installment of WMRA’s series on food insecurity, Jordy Yager hits the road with the Meals on Wheels program in Charlottesville, which provides the retired -- and the homebound -- with daily meals and a little human touch.

ADAM WRIGHT: Uh! Is this a one-way street? No. It’s not. We’re good (laughs).

[Sound of his phone’s navigation system]

I’m riding along with 30-year old Adam Wright. Wright’s an airline pilot by trade, but in his off hours he delivers food for Charlottesville’s Meals on Wheels.

[Wright pulls his parking brake, exits the car and knocks on a door.]

WRIGHT: Good morning Mr. Hare. (Well, thank you, thank you.) My pleasure. Have a wonderful day. (You too.)

Every day, five days a week, Meals on Wheels delivers about 270 meals to people in the Charlottesville area who are homebound or who can’t cook for themselves.

LEIGH TRIPPE: Right now our age group runs from 23 to 96.

Leigh Trippe is the executive director of Meals on Wheels in Charlottesville.

TRIPPE: The younger ones tend to have some type of debilitating disease or a mental disorder that does not allow them to care for themselves. But this allows them to live independently because they’ve got somebody to bring them food everyday. But 80 percent of the people that we serve are over 65. And about 65 percent are over 75. So it is mostly an elder population.  We’re talking about people who were the librarian in your school, the postal worker who came to your house everyday. These are people that you saw, and then you don’t see them anymore and you don’t think about them, but they’re there and they need us.

The Charlottesville Meals on Wheels was started 38 years ago by four women in a church basement. They delivered 8 meals a day. Today, that has grown to four part-time staff and a network of 180 volunteers. Each meal costs about $5.50. But because most of their clients are too poor to afford the meals, about three-quarters of the 270 daily meals they deliver are fully subsidized through the private donations they receive from local supporters. Trippe says they don’t receive any set government funding.  Most of the rest pay a sliding fee, somewhere between one and four dollars per meal, depending on their income.

TRIPPE: If we don’t feed them, they’re choosing between buying food and paying for their medicine or paying for their home. That’s not a fair choice. Nobody should have to make that choice. Especially when you get older. I mean, what can they do otherwise? They can’t go back to work.

WRIGHT: Got like a juice and an applesauce, and maybe a roll in there. Here’s the hot meal. Today they’re serving up potatoes, chicken nuggets, and spinach perhaps.

A handful of volunteers prepare meals in the basement of the Charlottesville headquarters. They’re packed into a series of coolers, which are each labeled with a different route number. On a recent Friday, Adam Wright gets Route 15. He’s got a total of 10 deliveries, some of which include meals intended to last clients through the weekend. One of those is Hortensia Cruz.

[Sound of Wright walking up to Cruz’s house and knocking on her door]

WRIGHT: Ms. Cruz, got some meals for ya. Got a minute for a reporter?

Cruz invites me into her small living room, where we sit and talk for half an hour. She has narcolepsy and a rare illness called Stiff Person Syndrome. It causes her to have random seizures because her senses are extraordinarily heightened. Loud noises, bright lights, sudden touches… these can all send her into convulsions. She wears a giant set of ear protectors around her neck, the kind that lumberjacks or construction workers wear.  

CRUZ: I cannot go to church, to a movie, to a party, concert, nothing. To a reunion, barbecue, because some people talk loud. Even the hospital, I have to talk to the front desk and ask them, ‘Is there a place where I can hide from the noise?’ And then they put me in a room by myself. So I cannot socialize like I wish I could.

Once, she tried to go to the grocery store. But a nearby shopper sneezed loudly and she dropped to the floor as her body began to tense up and spasm. She doesn’t know what she’d do without Meals on Wheels. She’s scared of cooking, for fear that she’d burn her house down if she had a seizure while at the stove.

But it’s more than just delivering meals to those in need. For many of these folks, this is the only contact they have with another human being throughout the course of the week. Volunteers aren’t just delivery drivers, they’re also caretakers. Meals on Wheels has emergency contact numbers for everyone they serve. If a volunteer is worried about a client, that number gets called. If they don’t answer, the police are there within 30 minutes to check on them.

TRIPPE: A couple of times, they have had to break in and they found people on the floor and gotten them to hospitals. Since I’ve been here, it’s all worked out really well.

Knowing they’re the only touchstone for many of their clients, Meals on Wheels tries to go one step further, sending birthday and holiday cards to folks as well, reminding them that they’re not entirely alone.

TRIPPE: We had one lady call — and she wasn’t complaining — but everybody in the office cried over it. She called to tell us that we were the only people in the world who remembered her birthday. And she wasn’t doing that to make us feel sorry for her, she was just telling us how appreciative she was that we did it.  It’s hard to think of people being that alone, but they are.