Editor's note: This story originally appeared in thepress.net, which covers stories in Brentwood, Discovery Bay, Oakley, and Antioch.
Hunger is something most people associate with famines in some far-off continents. But when COVID-19 hit, and people lost their jobs, people not having enough food to eat was in the news as U.S. citizens lined up at food banks. Before the pandemic, seniors here in Contra Costa County needed help procuring food every day for years. With the pandemic, the problem has become more pronounced.
Seniors are the hidden hungry in our community. They are homebound, isolated, and they have few people to advocate for them. They don’t have enough food for many reasons, but inflation has had a dramatic impact on those living on fixed incomes. Limits seniors face in their physical ability also contribute to hunger. Many elders no longer drive and are too frail to negotiate their way around the supermarket. Arthritis or other health problems make it impossible for them to stand, cook, or even cut up vegetables.
According to Caitlin Sly, executive director of Meals on Wheels Diablo Region, the need for home-delivered meals has increased by 50% since 2019, with the organization delivering over 600,000 meals last year, the largest number in its 50-year history. She expects that number to continue to increase. “Every day, 10,000 people turn age 70 in the United States, and in Contra Costa County, older adults are the fastest-growing segment of the population. Inflation increased life spans, and having a fragile support system means that more and more people will turn to organizations like Meals on Wheels Diablo Region. For many, we are the safety net. We are the difference from being fed to going hungry.”
In addition to the increase in home-delivered meals, the pandemic demonstrated another aspect of senior hunger. “We found that too many clients were splitting the one meal we delivered to have enough food for lunch, dinner, and to take at night with medications. As a society, those who gave so much to our community should not be forced to ration food,” Sly said.
During the pandemic, Meals on Wheels Diablo Region began the Breakfast Bag Program, which started in Brentwood. The Breakfast Bags contain enough food for a week’s worth of breakfast items, such as string cheese, fresh fruit, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, and healthy grains like oatmeal. The bags also now include salads, sandwiches, and snackable vegetables. Seniors who are receiving Breakfast Bags report a significant improvement in their health, are no longer hungry all day and are less anxious about not having enough food. The program has now expanded to cities across the county.
“We believe everyone deserves a healthy breakfast,” Sly said. “Eating a healthy, well-rounded breakfast can keep the older adults we serve out of the hospital and long-term care.”
Funding for the Breakfast Bags comes from a variety of sources, and Sly hopes they will be able to expand the program to all seniors who need it. “Right now, we need to raise funds to ensure we can continue the Breakfast Bag Program, so very food insecure elders don’t go hungry. With the rising prices of food and gas, it is even more expensive to deliver meals.” In February 2023, the organization will hold the Feed the Soul campaign with the goal of raising $28,000 in 28 days to support the Breakfast Bag program.
While funding is always challenging, recruiting volunteers can also be difficult. “People are often under the impression that the volunteer commitment is very time-consuming, but actually, it is only two hours a day, once a week,” Sly said. “When volunteers take a route, they find it extremely fulfilling.”
Joan Vandivier, a Direct Support Professional who coordinates deliveries in Brentwood with her group Futures Explored, says volunteering for Meals on Wheels Diablo Region is rewarding. “Some of the clients we deliver to have no family members. When they see us, it brings a smile to their face, and we know how much they appreciate and need the meal we deliver. We’re always happy to see them, too. They have become almost like friends. Anyone who is thinking of volunteering, I say do it because you’ll like it.” Meals on Wheels Diablo Region has a tremendous need for volunteers in Brentwood and other East County towns. Volunteers can apply on the website at www.mowdiabloregion.org.
Another challenge the organization recently faced is a fire in its Walnut Creek offices in September. Services to seniors were not disrupted because the staff worked from home for seven weeks and are now in temporary office space, but they will not be returning to their building for at least a year.
The fire has resulted in a financial burden to the organization, and they have set up a fire fund for donations. “Our staff and volunteers are resilient, and we are all proud that no client missed a meal because of the fire,” Sly said. “We are focused on our mission, and that is to make sure seniors remain nourished, safe, and independent at home for as long as possible. Elders depend on MOW Diablo Region, and we are committed to being there for them today and into the future.”
To support Meals on Wheels Diablo Region and help seniors, visit www.mowdiabloregion.org. For more information, contact Sherry Nadworny at firstname.lastname@example.org.