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Those spiking gas prices have Meals On Wheels hurting for volunteer drivers

First the pandemic lessened volunteers, now gas prices — even as the need to help the homebound rises.
Hilda Santiago, 81, left, accepts food from Meals on Wheels volunteer Kitty Wallace, 75.
Hilda Santiago, 81, left, accepts food from Meals on Wheels volunteer Kitty Wallace, 75. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 23|Updated May 24

TAMPA — Retired teacher Kitty Wallace, 75, has been a Meals on Wheels volunteer for 17 years, delivering hot food to elderly, disabled and homebound people around the neighborhood.

Some days, she’s the only person they’ll see.

“By getting to know the individual folks, you get a sweet word and some thanks,” said Wallace as she loaded that day’s turkey meatball subs, sweet potato planks, veggies, fruit and bottled water into her blue 2009 Ford Focus. “You get far more than you give.”

Officials at Meals on Wheels of Tampa say they’re currently hurting for drivers like Wallace — volunteers they call the heart of what they do. First it was the pandemic that had people hunkered down at home, they say — and now, spiking gas prices.

“Demand (for meals) is up ... but what we’re struggling with right now is the volunteer issue,” said Cindy Vann, director of mission engagement. “I think a lot of people are thinking: ‘Yikes, I fill up my car and it’s 80 bucks.’”

“I’ve had a couple say, ‘I’m going to have to drop this extra route. I’ll pick it up if gas prices go back down,’” said volunteer program manager Yvette Rouse.

The pandemic also hit the Meals on Wheels program in which a company “adopts” a delivery route and its employees do the volunteer driving. Meals on Wheels officials say some were lost to the work-at-home business model, and some businesses closed.

All of which has office Meals on Wheels staff members driving routes themselves and sometimes paying for delivery drivers.

“It’s the only way we can get the meals out,” Vann said.

It’s not just Tampa where volunteers have taken a hit. David Lomaka, executive director of Neighborly Care Network, which provides Meals on Wheels in Pinellas County, said a generous donor recently gave them $8,000 in gas cards, and $10 gas cards were passed out to volunteers.

“Some volunteers don’t take it,” he said. “Others, the $10 card is a lot.”

A Meals on Wheels turkey meatball sub meal.
A Meals on Wheels turkey meatball sub meal. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In Tampa, volunteers currently deliver hot meals to 1,000 homes a day from the Meals on Wheels kitchen on Hillsborough Avenue between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays. They serve 94 routes in neighborhoods across the city and county, stretching from Lutz to Riverview. Delivery routes are tailored to be close to where a volunteer lives or works and to take about an hour to an hour and a half.

In the last six months, the nonprofit added 10 new routes. They could easily add 10 more, officials say, but there aren’t enough volunteers.

“We’re just growing so quick because there’s such a need,” said Rouse.

More than half of the recipients pay for the meals on a sliding scale based on what they can afford — from 50 cents to $3.50 per meal. About 20 percent are able to pay the full price of $5.50. And 20 to 25 percent “can’t pay anything at all,” said executive director Steve King, who on a recent weekday was readying to deliver meals himself in Seminole Heights.

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They operate a 28-day rotating menu (A sampling: chicken pot pie, pork with black beans and rice, spaghetti, sweet and sour chicken). They serve diabetic and renal diets and pureed food.

Alonzo Young prepares trays of stuffed shells at Tampa's Meals on Wheels kitchen on Hillsborough Avenue.
Alonzo Young prepares trays of stuffed shells at Tampa's Meals on Wheels kitchen on Hillsborough Avenue. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

But drivers do more than deliver meals. They are also “the touchpoint of having somebody knock on your door and look you in the eye, and to do a safety check,” said Vann.

Todd Austin, a yacht broker, has been volunteering for a couple of months now.

“As it went along, I realized it wasn’t about the food — it’s about talking to Miss Linda,” said Austin, 50. “Sometimes I’m the only person they see. I ask how the knee surgery went. You get to know them. They’re excited when you get there.”

When he’s done, he said, “I get in my car and I go back to my world of plenty where I can’t even see the back of my fridge. Just, for two hours, I’ve done something for someone else and not just myself.”

Meals on Wheels volunteer Kitty Wallace carries a cooler filled with meals to her car for the midday delivery.
Meals on Wheels volunteer Kitty Wallace carries a cooler filled with meals to her car for the midday delivery. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

On a recent weekday, Wallace approached her clients’ doors with a jaunty shave-and-a-haircut knock. When one didn’t answer, she made a call to make sure there would be a wellness check and continued her deliveries. Another client was already peeking out her open door in her slippers, waiting.

“I don’t know what I’d do without them, because I don’t cook,” said another recipient, Sarah Gardner, 79. “I’m very grateful.”

• • •

Meals on Wheels of Tampa:

For more information, go to mowtampa.org or call (813) 238-8410.

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