The volunteer-run food delivery service is as determined as ever to help Plant Citians in need get fed when they can’t leave their homes.
For many people in Plant City, a stay-at-home order meant next to nothing for their day-to-day lives. They already had to stay at home nearly every day — and not by choice. As long as those situations aren’t changing and people are still unable to go out and get food when they need to eat, the local Meals on Wheels chapter will try to be there for them.
This is the 30th year since Meals on Wheels was first chartered in Plant City. It’s also already shaping up to be one of the the most difficult years, if not the toughest one, the group has ever had.
George Newman, Chairman of the Board, said Meals on Wheels needs two things now as much as ever: volunteers and donations. Both have been difficult to come by as COVID-19 has affected this part of Hillsborough County, but both are crucial to keep Meals on Wheels going when they need it most.
As people are concerned about the spread of the virus and opting to spend more time indoors, the group is tasked with delivering food with a much smaller crew of drivers than it would like.
“We definitely are hurting for drivers,” Newman said. “Most of us are over 60. Some are winter visitors. Getting 10 more would be great, but if we got five I would be ecstatic.
No one involved in the group — which covers seven zones of the Plant City area for two hours a day, five days a week, serving a fluctuating base of around 42 clients — gets paid for the two hours a day they spend picking up food at Winn-Dixie and driving to each of their stops. But the work itself, volunteers say, is rewarding enough.
“I’ve had the same people for a long time,” Judy Wise, who has been a driver for six years, said. “You really get close to them. One of the gentlemen calls me his ‘angel.’ They are so grateful. I get more out of it than they do. I truly enjoy talking to them, meeting them and listening to their stories… I will do this as long as I am physically and mentally able.”
Of course, due to the virus, Meals on Wheels has had to alter its procedures beyond having drivers wear masks and gloves.
“Under normal circumstances, before the coronavirus struck, part of our charge is to make a ‘welfare check’ to see how the person is doing,” Newman said. “Talk to them, make sure everything’s OK, make sure they don’t need any emergency care. We do that by simply talking with them, spending a few minutes with each client. If you’re well ahead of schedule, you might spend 10 or 15 minutes talking with them. If they were down a little bit, it perks them back up. That’s part of what we do. Now, we can’t do that. The arrangement we’ve had for a month is they’ll have a cooler with ice outside their door and we’ll let them know we’re there. The food is in the cooler. They can come out and get the food out of the cooler.”
Though many clients are able to come to the door to pick up their food after a driver leaves it, there are some who can’t do that and need the driver to enter their homes. In one stop on Wise’s route, for example, the client leaves his front door unlocked so Wise can walk in and announce herself after first knocking, put the food where the client can get it and then leave.
“I’m very careful about him, but he does not want to leave that cooler outside,” Wise said.
Meals on Wheels also needs donations, which Newman acknowledges may have to wait until the state furthers its reopening and more people become financially stable.
The group is heavily reliant on donations, which do come in but aren’t always so frequent. Last year, Newman said, the group had to use $11,000 from its savings account to make its budget.
The money is to be used for food for clients, which for the most part comes from Winn-Dixie. Chefs at the Plant City store prepare all of the regular clients’ food every morning, Monday through Friday, for drivers to pick up between 10 and 10:30 a.m. The store lets Meals on Wheels purchase all of the meals at cost, which works out to about $6.25 apiece.
“Winn-Dixie’s really been great to us,” Newman said. “Henry Falcon is one of the great charitable men in the city. He just does everything he can do to help us out.”
The meals that don’t come from Winn-Dixie are part of a new movement the group is undertaking. Newman said Meals on Wheels has begun the process of supporting area medical workers in need by buying and delivering meals from local vendors, restaurants and more to give to them when they need it. Medical workers who have been laid off, have had their hours cut and are generally strapped for cash are eligible.
Other community groups help out where they can, too. For example, the GFWC Woman’s Club of Plant City gets Christmas gifts and makes birthday bags for Meals on Wheels clients, and the Federated Republican Women’s Club puts together Thanksgiving gift bags for the clients.
Trying times may be ahead for Meals on Wheels, but the group is going to keep on trucking against the odds.
“We still get the job done,” Newman said. “We’ve got to help them. We feel obligated to do what we do.”
LEND A HAND
Anyone who wishes to volunteer their time, become a client, set up meals for medical workers in need or donate money to Meals on Wheels can start the process by calling the office at 813-754-9932. Office hours are 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Monday through Friday. Donations can also be mailed to the office, which is located at 1304 E. Baker St.