Demand for Meals on Wheels in the Tampa Bay area has jumped in the past year and waiting lists have grown, leaving some elderly and disabled people with one less food option as 2009 begins.
The problem is most dire in Pinellas and Pasco counties, where people are being turned away. Need is also up in Hillsborough County, though program managers have been able to keep pace.
Steve King, who directs the largest of Hillsborough County's three Meals on Wheels operations in Tampa, said demand for meals has grown 28 percent since March.
But his waiting list is only two people, and they'll soon be getting hot meals once drivers can adjust their routes.
"We're definitely getting more calls," King said. "And we're handling them, but they get backed up and maybe aren't handled as timely as we'd like."
Things are much worse in Pinellas, where the nonprofit Neighborly Care Network based in St. Petersburg runs the program. Funding comes from the state and federal governments and private donors.
Program spokeswoman Sandi Narron said her group serves a daily meal to 1,600 elderly and homebound residents. In past years, the waiting list could grow as high as 100, but with a new infusion of funding, the backlog would get erased.
In the past year Narron said demand has increased while funding has not. The waiting list is now 400 names long, she said, but was as high as 500 a few months ago.
In Pasco, program manager Gabriel Papadopoulos said there is a waiting list of 148 people wanting Meals on Wheels. A year ago, he said, there was no waiting list.
The state, county and federal governments as well as private donors fund Meals on Wheels in Pasco. Papadopoulos said funds for the program declined 5 percent in 2008, with the waiting list a sad consequence.
"Absolutely, it's a concern," he said. "My heart goes out to these people."
Unlike in Pinellas and Pasco, Hillsborough's programs are all funded by private donors or businesses, so they are not reliant on government funding. The Tampa branch delivers to roughly 500 homebound people daily, King said, and makes another 250 daily deliveries to larger organizations, such as mental health agencies.
King said his program was in the position of not having to turn anyone away.
"We're far from our limit of what we can handle," he said. "We could serve two to three times what we're serving, but that would involve a lot of changes and hiring more staff, things of that nature."
In Pinellas, Largo resident Nancy Seaborn has been waiting a year to get a spot. She lives on social security disability and in May was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, also known as ALS. The wait has been infuriating, she said.
"I am a senior citizen, I have a debilitating disease," said the 66-year-old. "I don't know why I can't get on Meals on Wheels."
Narron, the spokeswoman for the Pinellas program, said that to qualify participants must be 60 or over or disabled. State guidelines, she said, are used to assess who is neediest, with those lacking other resources given priority.
Narron said she feels bad that everybody can't be helped, but she said the program is run fairly.
"Somebody else is more needy than her," she said of Seaborn.
Will Van Sant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-445-4166.