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Gas Prices Make Road Bumpy For Meals On Wheels

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Aired 5/9/11

Soaring gas prices are making it tougher for Meal on Wheels San Diego to deliver food to seniors. The agency is traveling the same road it was on when price spikes drove away volunteers three years ago.

— A small warehouse on India Street near downtown San Diego bustles with activity on weekday mornings. Volunteers and staffers are packing and organizing 600 to 800 hot meals. Christine Simpson is pulling thick metal plates out of an oven and slipping them into the pockets of blue and white plastic cases. Those cases look more like coolers than carriers designed to keep meals warm.

“They’ve been heating for about an hour. And the hot plates stay hot till about one o’clock,” said Simpson.

Once the containers get their warmers, the prepared meals go in and the cases are stacked in six rows. Each row of 20 to 30 cases is loaded into a van which heads to one of six distribution points scattered around San Diego County.

Volunteer coordinator Don Perron waits patiently at a church parking lot in Clairemont. He welcomes the truck and the volunteers.

Meals on Wheels Truck at Clairemont distribution point.
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Above: Meals on Wheels Truck at Clairemont distribution point.

Many of the people who arrive to deliver the meals are seniors themselves and they struggle with fixed incomes.

“I’ve had a couple of volunteers tell me they’re not going to be able to drive as much because of the gas cost,” said Perron. “I have one for example, I won’t mention her name, she drives for me two days a week. She’s down to one day a week.”

That happened a lot three years ago when gas prices swelled and the volunteer pool shrank.

“They’re volunteers, they’re not paid for the time or their mileage,” said Perron.

There are troubling signs again this year. Gas prices are up over four dollars a gallon and still rising. Meals on Wheels President and CEO Debbie Chase typically does background checks on 30 new volunteers each month. In April, she did one check.

“Its not just the fuel,” said Case. “The fuel is just the tip of the iceberg. Below that are all the other costs that it is affecting.”

Food is more expensive. Deliveries are more expensive. And the Meals on Wheels four million dollar budget is getting stretched.

“It takes every cent of that to get everything out and on the road,” according to Case. “It costs about $17.81 for two meals and a beverage, to get it to each senior. So if they’re paying seven we have to make up that difference.”

Fuel costs alone were up more than $7,200 in the first quarter of 2010, and Meals on Wheels officials fear the bill will be even higher in the second quarter.

Meal in hand, smartly dressed Tricia Daly peeks into a picture window of a modest Clairemont house.

“Yoohoo, I always do the yoohoo,” said Daly.

This customer isn’t home, so she climbs into her SUV and heads toward her next client’s apartment. Daly sells homes full time in San Diego County. She became a Meals on Wheels volunteer because her brother committed to the program after being diagnosed with cancer.

“And when he passed two years ago I said I’m doing it. He got me into it,” said Daly.

A quick stroll across a courtyard, and she see’s a gentleman in his 80’s.

“Hi Mr. Kelly. How are you doing buddy?” said Daly as the pair share a big hug. “Are you going to work out today?” He whispers yes.

“This is probably the most important appointment for me,” said Daly. “It just brings tears to my eyes because they’re really nice people and they need it, you know. They really need the people.”

So far, high gas prices haven’t kept Meals on Wheels from delivering, even during tough economic times. The owner of the India Street warehouse donated three years worth of rent to help the agency weather the recent economic downturn. And in 2008, when gas prices set a record price of $4.63 a gallon, the Barona Indians gave Meals on Wheels a fuel tanker truck full of gas to help make ends meet.

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