Meals on Wheels program struggles to trim waiting list of local homebound seniors

A program that brings free meals to hundreds of South Sound homebound seniors has a waiting list of 12 people — and organizers say that list is 12 people too long.

Senior Services for South Sound serves about 3,000 people in Thurston and Mason counties. The organization sponsors regular lunches at community centers across the region and also serves about 500 seniors through its Meals on Wheels program.

With the latter, volunteers deliver hot meals three days a week as well as frozen meals for seniors to eat on non-delivery days. One day a week, volunteers also deliver bread and milk.

The program has been struggling financially, especially after last summer’s loss of a grant worth about $25,000.

“Our Meals on Wheels program is really driven by people’s health,” said executive director Eileen McKenzie Sullivan, adding that each meal costs the organization about $7. Donations are suggested to participants, but not required, she said. “We get, programwide, an average of 50 cents per meal in terms of donations.”

The program meets a basic but critical need for homebound seniors. Ann Moore, 73, appreciates the volunteers who deliver meals to her Olympia apartment. Moore suffers from a range of health problems, including diabetes, and has limited mobility.

“Driving isn’t an option anymore,” said Moore, who lives alone. “I use a cane to get around, and that’s even a bit hard.”

For about three years, Moore has relied on the program’s meals, which she said are low in sodium and “really are tasty.” She likes the variety, such as meatloaf and mashed potatoes or spaghetti and meatballs.

The meals also come with a human touch. Volunteer delivery drivers have brought Moore magazines and have even run errands, for example. Sometimes they bring extra comfort through conversation.

“These are beautiful, beautiful people,” she said of the volunteers. “On many levels, this is an unbelievable resource and service.”

The waiting list for Meals on Wheels got some relief this summer after the organization received grant money from the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound and a private donation of $15,000. However, new clients always replace the old, said Cathy Visser, senior nutrition director.

“We didn’t get enough funding to stop the waiting list, but we can take eight off the list a month,” she said, noting that high-need clients are served first. “That’s what we can afford to do right now.”

Visser estimated it would take about $32,000 just to serve the waiting list for Meals on Wheels. If more money were available, the program could offer more vegetarian or gluten-free options, she said. The goal with every meal is to meet one-third of a client’s recommended daily nutritional needs for protein, grains, fruits and vegetables, Visser said. Some seniors even turn one meal into two meals for a day, she said.

In addition to Meals on Wheels, the organization’s community lunches are a welcome social opportunity that typically attract more than 60 guests at a time.

George Blake and Linda Bumford enjoy dining together every Friday at The Olympia Center — and the food is a bonus. The sweethearts have been “going together” for about a year, and first met at the center during a meal sponsored by the organization. Blake walks to the center from the Boardwalk Apartments, while Bumford uses the Dial-A-Lift service to get there.

“The first day I came here, I fell in love with it,” Blake said Friday after finishing a lunch that included turkey and mashed potatoes.

“The people here accept you as you are,” Bumford said. “And the lunches are really good too.”