Mayors Find Out There’s More to Meals than Meals

By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid

When I think of Meals on Wheels, more likely than not I think of Penny.  She’s the lively sprite of a lady I met while doing a Meals ride-along in Laguna Niguel back in July of 2010. My guides that day were a husband-and-wife volunteer duo, Muriel and Al  Calfe.  Midway through the ride, as we approached Penny’s house, Muriel said with noticeable excitement in her voice, “Come meet Penny.  You must meet Penny!”

In the blog for that week I wrote, “When Penny opened the door, I saw instantly why I had to meet her.  She is a short slight woman in her 80’s with a contagious smile and an energetic wit. We all went into her kitchen, and the three of them talked on like old friends. This week the subject was movies.”

In that one visit I got to see the best that Meals on Wheels has to offer: a nutritious hot meal, a brief daily interlude of companionship, and although neither Muriel nor Al said anything about it, a welfare check to see that everything was okay with Penny. Penny can’t drive and there is no supermarket even close to walking distance, so Meals on Wheels is what makes it possible for her to stay in the familiar surroundings of her home.

That’s one of many kinds of stories we want the world to know about Meals on Wheels.  Variations on this story aren’t always as happy, but they all share one kernel of truth — if Meals on Wheels had to close up shop, millions of seniors in this country would lose a lifeline.  Some who can’t cook or shop would be forced out of their homes and into group settings. Others who live a life of poverty would be hard pressed to find nutritious food. And in the most dire cases, some people who suffer medical emergencies might lie unattended for days in their home.

Increasingly, however, it is the growing menace of hunger among seniors that makes Meals on Wheels such a vital resource.  According to “Senior Hunger in America: An Annual Report,” one in seven seniors is threatened with hunger — that’s 8.3 million in 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available, which is a 78% increase since 2001.

And in spite of Orange County’s reputation for affluence, hunger is a real threat right here as well. More of our county’s senior citizens who depend on food programs are being put on waiting lists or are being asked to pay for home-delivered meals because of rising costs, increasing demand and reduced federal funding, according to agencies that serve the county’s older population.

Once a year Meals on Wheels gets its story to some people who can influence public policy and spread the word about Meals to others who have the kind of access and resources to grow the program.  They are America’s mayors, and last week a number of the local mayors took part in the annual Mayors’ Meals deliveries from Age Well sites.

Laguna Niguel Mayor Robert Ming had never done the ride-along before, although he was familiar with Meals on Wheels.  He visited nine homes with a volunteer and watched the packing beforehand which he termed “quite an operation.”  Would he do it again? “Sure,” he said without hesitation. “I’m always glad when an organization not just donates but allows people to go out and help someone else. This is a great thing.”

What did he learn? “How important the relationship building experience is for both recipient and volunteer … especially getting to know someone and spending some time with people.”

Other local officials who participated were Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry; Dana Point Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Bartlett; from Laguna Hills, CEO of United Way Max Gardner; Rancho Santa Margarita Mayor Anthony Beall; and San Clemente Mayor Robert Baker and his wife Pam.

Thousands of other mayors from throughout the U.S. took part. “Seeing is believing,” said Port Vue (PA) Mayor Brien Hranics. “We are seeing the needs of our communities firsthand, and we can address it.”

Delaware (OH) Mayor Gary Milner participated for the third consecutive year. “A lot of these people don’t have much outside contact, so this is not just about delivering a meal – it’s also about making a personal connection,” he told a reporter.

Houston (TX) Mayor Annise Parker echoed that sentiment. “It is about making sure our seniors have enough nutritious food but it’s also a life line and a social connection,” she said.

Dorothy Harris, a Florida resident, said she was “really happy to see the mayor.” She praised the meals volunteers for being conscientious about making sure she’s okay. “If I’m not home, they’re frantic,” she said.

When we ask seniors what Meals on Wheels means to them, inevitably a number of them tell us, “I could not survive without it,” and they mean it quite literally. If you want to know how recipients feel, go to http://www.mowaa.org/stories, where you can see their faces and hear their stories in their own voices.

YOU CAN HELP Age Well and its volunteers who deliver an average of 450,000 meals every year right here in Orange County. Go to www.myagewell.org and make a donation.  Better still, join the Next Meal Club, and help thwart hunger every day of the week with a continuing donation.

At the Florence Sylvester Center, Meals on Wheels Manager Chris Etcheverry, Age Well CEO Dr. Marilyn Ditty, and United Way CEO Max Gardner. Photo by Sandy Zimmer.

Florence Sylvester nutrition volunteers Choon Ja Yeam and Sook Ja Lee. Photo by Sandy Zimmer.

Coming up on the Age Well Calendar:

Monday, June 3: Clyde Wright Invitational Golf Tournament. Benefiting Meals on Wheels and other Senior Services. 11 a.m. shotgun start at the Aliso Viejo Country Club. Golf plus continental breakfast, box lunch, buffet dinner, and prizes for contests.  For more info, call (949) 855-8033.

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