Meals on Wheels struggles to meet need

Mayor Joe Riley delivers food from Meals on Wheels to AnnaBelle Judge at her home on Charleston’s East Side.

AnnaBelle Judge is one of the fortunate ones. Every day she gets a visit from someone bringing her a warm meal.

The elderly woman lives with her son on Nassau Street on Charleston’s East Side, but she said he works and can’t always make meals for her. So getting a hot lunch hand delivered is “very valuable. ... It helps me,” she said.

As a bonus, she gets a little company: “someone to visit” in the middle of the day.

Some 300 other Charleston seniors, and possibly many more, are not so lucky. Their names sit on a waiting list to receive free daily meals from Meals on Wheels, one of the largest providers of meals for homebound seniors in the Charleston area.

A recent nationwide study by Meals on Wheels places the number of seniors facing the threat of hunger in South Carolina at nearly one out of every six seniors ages 60 and older. The study for the year 2010 said South Carolina ranks as the eighth-highest in nation when it comes to seniors fearing the potential of hunger. Nationally some 8.3 million senior Americans faced the threat of hunger, a 78 percent increase over the decade.

Tracey Erwin is development director of Charleston Area Senior Citizens, the nonprofit that runs the Meals on Wheels program that serves Charleston, North Charleston and much of Charleston County west of the Cooper River. She said it’s almost impossible to know how many seniors in the Charleston area might be in need of home-delivered meals and either don’t know about the program or didn’t sign up when they discovered there is a long waiting list. However many it is, she said, “it’s beyond sad.”

If the Meals on Wheels statewide estimate holds true in Charleston, then the number could be in the thousands.

Because of budgetary constraints and the continuing impact of the nation’s economic slump, Charleston Area Senior Citizens is appealing for the first time for individual donations from the public. In the past, it paid its bills with grants and donations from other organizations and the government.

But, she said in a statement, the organization “recently has had extreme difficulty keeping up with the ever-expanding need for senior meals.”

Sandra Clair, Charleston Area Senior Citizens’ executive director, said the organization is seeing a surge in those on its waiting list, where many remain for as long as a year until a spot opens. And, she said, the organization’s ability to provide meals in a crisis situation has dropped. Just last year, the Crisis Meals program took hot meals to 25 seniors. That’s down to just 15 that the program can feed now, she said.

Earlier this year, Trident United Way cut off funding for some of Charleston Area Senior Citizens’ meals and aid programs. Trident said those programs do not fit into the organization’s new goal to push for broad-based community improvement through efforts to increase educational attainment, build jobs and financial stability and improve health. Trident United Way subsequently gave Charleston Area Senior Citizens a one-time grant of $96,000 to help it get by while trying to find new sources of money for the meals program.

The hit from Trident’s cut won’t be felt for a year because of the one-time grant extension, but donations and grants from all sources are down, Clair said. As a result, the Meals on Wheels program dropped from serving about 500 daily meals to homebound seniors last year at this time to 400 now.

Clair said she has several grant applications out and is scrambling to stay even. If nothing improves, “we’ll be even more hard-pressed next year” when the Trident cut kicks in.

To help publicize the need, Charleston Senior Citizens enlisted the help of Mayor Joe Riley on Monday to hand-deliver meals to seniors at downtown homes for about an hour.

Riley said the city does not independently maintain statistics on the number of seniors in need of meal assistance. But, he said, the increasing number of retirees moving to the area and the aging of the baby boom generation promises that helping the elderly will be a challenge for the community.

AnnaBelle Judge leaned heavily on her walker as she maneuvered herself into a comfortable chair. She thanked Riley as he gently set the meal on her lap and offered to fetch a fork for her from the kitchen.

“It’s nice,” she said.

Doug Pardue is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter and a member of The Post and Courier's projects team. Before joining this newspaper, he served as investigations editor at USA Today, The Tampa Tribune and The State (Columbia, SC)