Volunteer Rodney Cheek helps to load cars with box dinners for Meals On Wheels in 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Meals On Wheels delivery waitlist soars to over 600 during pandemic

More older adults in Atlanta are struggling to find food during the coronavirus pandemic, new data from Meals On Wheels Atlanta suggests.

The nonprofit, which delivers meals to seniors, said its waiting list has doubled since March, and has now grown to more than 600 people, said Hillary Baker, the organization’s chief marketing officer.

To meet that increased need, Meals On Wheels has increased its output and delivery efforts. In 2019, Meals on Wheels delivered 519,000 meals to Atlantans. This year, Baker said, they could double that number, possibly producing one million meals.

“Our phones rang off the hook,” Baker said, describing the sudden rise in need when the pandemic first hit.

IN-DEPTH: As pandemic lingers, fears grow that more families forced to go hungry

People who qualify for Meals On Wheels delivery — low-income residents who are over 60 — are already considered among the most vulnerable during the pandemic. The increased demand for food, Baker said, highlights how the burden older adults are facing goes further than the virus itself.

“Senior hunger is just getting worse,” she said. “They’re very worried.”

Many older Atlantans who are now homebound due to the virus are no longer able to go out and get food, Baker said. Some might not want to attend an in-person food drive for fear of being exposed to the coronavirus. Others might typically receive support from a family member who has now lost their job due to the pandemic.

Food insecurity in metro Atlanta has risen 30 to 40% since the coronavirus pandemic began, food bank officials said. Meals On Wheels estimates that a quarter of seniors in Atlanta face the threat of hunger.

Vona Cox waits to register volunteers during a Meals On Wheels Thanksgiving meals delivery event in 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The organization plans to build a new kitchen at its facility in northwest Atlanta, which could help address the rise in need. Baker said they hope to triple their production when the new kitchen opens next year.

Since the pandemic hit, many businesses and organizations put a greater emphasis on delivery service to reduce face-to-face contact. Meals On Wheels was already accustomed to that model as a delivery-centric organization.

The virus “didn’t stop us in our tracks,” Baker said. The nonprofit shifted its procedures so its over 100 volunteers do not have to enter the Meals On Wheels facility to pick up food before delivering it. Typically, volunteers would deliver meals several days a week. Now, Baker said, they deliver five to seven nutritious meals and some breakfast snacks every Saturday.

The nonprofit recently launched a new digital campaign to raise awareness about senior hunger and encourage donations and volunteers; Meals On Wheels is mostly funded by foundations and local donations. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, rapper Waka Flocka Flame and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms are among the people that have been featured in the #NeighborsHelpingNeighbors campaign on social media.

The organization’s waitlist only includes people who have met the requirements to receive food delivery. Recipients must be:

  • 60 years and older
  • Fulton County residents
  • Low-income

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