Meal programs for older adults often are underfunded in the best of times, but when the pandemic hit Arizona and other states, the demand for nutrition assistance grew rapidly, stretching many social-service groups' budgets to the breaking point. But that may be changing, since Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, which includes a $175 million infusion for senior-nutrition programs.
For many, said Bert Ijams, executive director of Meals on Wheels Prescott/Prescott Valley, leaving home during the pandemic means risking their lives.
"When the pandemic hit, those people who were homebound, certainly their needs were magnified," she said. "But a lot of other people were and are afraid to go out, to go to the grocery store. More and more people wanted to stay home, just to protect themselves and their family."
Ijams said her group stopped its daily meals and wellness checks in Prescott and the Prescott Valley. Instead, they delivered five meals one day a week, with daily phone check-ins. She said more funding will allow a return to daily meals with in-person visits and the ability to serve more people.
Ijams said her agency is funded by a mix of public funds, grants and private donations. She added that while they never turn anyone away, the demand for meal service is growing at an ever-increasing pace.
"Over the last 17 months, our number of meals provided has increased by 21%," she said. "That's significant; almost a quarter-percent more. I don't think that that trend is going to subside."
Money from the federal program will be apportioned to states, which will distribute those funds through agencies such as the Northern Arizona Council of Governments. Ijams said it's a misconception that Meals for Wheel only serves low-income households.
"Can you access food, can you prepare food or do you have a cognitive or physical disability that makes it unsafe or painful for you to have food? Many older adults no longer drive, so it's difficult for them to access food," she said. "Those are our two criteria. Poverty is not one of them."
Dozens of agencies like Meals on Wheels provide hundreds of thousands of congregate and home-delivered meals to Arizonans each week.