Neighborly Care Network, which delivers 1,000 meals each weekday to homebound Pinellas County seniors, got a funding boost Monday with a $50,000 gift from Sweetbay Supermarket.
The donation will qualify the agency to receive $450,000 in matching federal funds.
"We're going to take people off the waiting list,'' said Debra Shade, president of the Clearwater-based agency. She said the agency expects to cut the waiting list of 550 seniors by about one-fifth.
The money from the supermarket chain comes at a time when local government funding for the program has virtually disappeared. Two years ago, the city of St. Petersburg provided $40,000, which was cut in half last year. Apart from charging only a nominal sum for the use of city facilities, St. Petersburg will not provide any money for the upcoming year. Other Pinellas municipalities also will not help fund the Meals on Wheels program for the new year beginning in January.
Pinellas County, which contributed $49,000 last year, considered cutting all funds during budget discussions in July. It has agreed to restore partial funding for the new fiscal year, but by how much is uncertain.
The donation is Sweetbay's first to Neighborly Care Network, said Nicole LeBeau, spokeswoman for the Tampa-based supermarket chain.
"They have to be able to continue to do what they do,'' she said. "They are not going to be able to do this year after year without other companies stepping up."
The presentation of the check was made at the Sunshine Senior Center in St. Petersburg, a staging point for many of the weekday meals volunteers deliver to seniors around the city.
In Clearwater, Guillermina Umpierrez, 85, saves the hot midday meal for dinner time.
"It's better for me," she said. "I like everything they bring for me. It keeps me healthy.''
Eugene Simmons, 91, who lives in St. Petersburg, described the meals as "pretty good."
And for Marcella and Robert Skallerup, the Meals on Wheels program is a "boon."
"It's nutritious,'' said Marcella Skallerup, 92, who is legally blind. Her husband, who is 91, has Alzheimer's.
Instead of hot dishes, the Palm Harbor couple receives frozen meals that are delivered every two weeks. "They are a great advantage to the elderly that want to remain independent," she said.
While most people receive food through the federally funded program, some seniors are "private pay" and are charged $5.25 a meal, said Neighborly Care Network spokesperson Sandra Narron.
"There are not very many of these, however,'' she said.
"We ask all of our clients (who are federally funded) to donate something toward the cost of the meal. Some can only pay $1 per month, some can pay $20 per month. It is just a donation, however, and if they cannot pay that month, that is fine."
The agency receives its federal funding through the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas. For every dollar it raises, Neighborly Care Network gets $9 in matching federal funds, a reason that the Sweetbay gift is important.
Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers attended last week's presentation.
It was "a long trek'' to St. Petersburg, he said, but "I couldn't be anywhere else."
In the years to come, he said, with government aid diminishing, partnerships like that of Sweetbay and Neighborly Care Network will be crucial.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article.