If Meals on Wheels didn’t deliver donated dog food, Sherry Scott of San Diego says her golden retriever Tootie would be eating the pasta, riblets and veggie wraps meant for her. But thanks to partnerships between the program for low-income seniors and pet groups across the country, fewer people and pets are going hungry.
After Meals on Wheels volunteers noticed a growing number of clients giving their food away to their pets, they started working with shelters and other animal welfare groups to add free pet food to their meal deliveries. Those programs, relying on donations and volunteers, have continued to grow in popularity.
Meals on Wheels is just one organization serving people who are poor, disabled or elderly, but it has a vast reach. It has teamed up with independently run pet partners in several states. The partner groups solicit, pick up, pack and get the animal chow to Meals on Wheels or a similar organization. Agencies also take pet food to nursing homes, senior centers or community centers.
Those who qualify for Meals on Wheels or similar programs are almost always eligible to also receive free pet food.
“Pets are so important to our seniors. They are social workers, depression counselors, a lifeline for a lot of them,” said Charles Gehring, CEO of the Columbus, Ohio-based LifeCare Alliance, a nonprofit providing meals and other services to low-income seniors.
It is common for economically disadvantaged older adults or people with disabilities to feed their pets instead of themselves, Gehring said. The nonprofit started a pet food giveaway program five years ago that now serves more than 1,000 animals a month.
LifeCare Alliance laun-ched the program after taking a survey and learning many Columbus area seniors had pets. Most were low income, didn’t drive and were isolated. Gehring said 70 percent reported not seeing anyone besides their Meals on Wheels driver each week.
“The pets are so important to them. But people need to eat what we give them. Pets don’t need Salisbury steak,” Gehring said.
For Scott, critical food deliveries arrive from Meals on Wheels in San Diego, which partnered with the Helen Woodward Animal Center 15 years ago to add pet food drop-offs. Woodward started one of the first pet food programs in the U.S. in 1984, called AniMeals, which expanded its reach when the two agencies partnered.
“Animals provide companionship and love,” said Luanne Hinkle, director of development for the San Diego Meals on Wheels. So when Woodward suggested the partnership, “we jumped right in.”
AniMeals started with 10 pets in the San Diego area, and today there are 250, said Woodward Animal Center spokeswoman Jessica Gercke.
The partnership was formed after a Meals on Wheels volunteer “discovered one of her clients was sharing her delivered food with her cats, sacrificing her own health,” Gercke said.
Scott, a former tennis instructor who lives on less than $800 a month, has been receiving Meals on Wheels deliveries for four years and pet food from AniMeals for about a year. “The pet food program is a lifesaver,” she said.