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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Meals on Wheels: Food and fellowship for Oakland's elders

Visakha Som
Hope Fox of Oakland and her daughter, Pat McKern

There are over 40 million people over the age of 65 in the US today. According to the census bureau, that number is going to double by mid-century. While the senior citizen population grows, the country’s economic health is declining, which brings up questions: How will we care for the elderly? How will we ensure they are fed, clothed, and sheltered?

As with a lot of national issues, California is a kind of bellwether. Although our state’s economy makes up 17 percent of the GDP, we now lead the nation with the highest number of senior citizens living in poverty. And within the state, the city with the highest number of impoverished seniors is Oakland.

The cost of living in the Bay Area has risen sharply, especially in the past few years, but the federal benefits that many seniors rely on are often not enough to meet expenses. The costs of housing, healthcare, and food are often so high that many are going without one or more of those basic needs. A recent county-by-county study of California elders showed that while a typical senior in Alameda has expenses of about $2,000 a month, the maximum SSI, or supplemental security income, payment is just about $850 a month.

This gap leaves many seniors in dire need of help from local social service agencies-- which is where a program like Meals on Wheels comes in.

More than just a meal

Hope Fox is 92, and though she suffers from dementia, she’s been able to stay in the East Oakland home where she’s lived for almost 50 years. Her daughter comes up from Vacaville to care for her a few days a week, and Meals on Wheels helps fill in on the other days.

Fox says she feels grateful that she has family to help her out, but she knows that there are others who are not so lucky. Speaking about her delivery driver, Glenn Iwaoka, she says, “I bet you there’s places he goes where that’s the only outside person they’ll see all day. And when he comes and he smiles … This makes such a difference.”

Jamie Almanza is executive director of Bay Area Community Services (BACS), which runs the Meals on Wheels program in Oakland. She says the majority of the seniors they serve live alone and isolated. Many do not have family support. “So our drivers are trained to not only drop off the meal, but to do a visual and personal check-in with the senior,” she says, “each day that they drop off the meal.”

Ben Haywood, 68, lives alone near Mills College, and has been a Meals on Wheels client for about six months. “Actually, it’s company,” he says about the deliveries. “That minute of exchange is such a high ritual, when it has to do with sustenance and familiarity.”

Last year, a series of medical issues and hospitalizations -- including cancer, a double hernia, and lung problems -- left Haywood confined to his home, depressed and isolated. He stopped playing piano and writing poetry, two of his favorite activities. His physical ailments made it difficult to leave the house, so he couldn’t go grocery shopping. He says he was too proud to ask for help from his daughters.

One Friday afternoon he found himself with an empty cupboard. He wondered how he would make it through the weekend. Swallowing his pride, he called a social services hotline and got connected with Meals on Wheels. On Monday at lunchtime, a Meals on Wheels van pulled up outside his apartment. “And a guy steps out with a box of food,” he says, “and a smile.”

The numbers don’t add up

BACS currently delivers meals to nearly 600 seniors in Oakland and Piedmont -- but there’s growing need. A few months ago, the waitlist for service was around 200 people. And while they were able to clear that waitlist recently, with an influx of new volunteers and a boost of extra funding from local foundations, executive director Almanza says it’s still hard to keep up. “We get on average 15 new calls a week,” she says.

There are a variety of factors that make Oakland’s number of impoverished seniors so high. The rising costs of housing, food and healthcare; the foreclosure crisis of the last few years; plus Oakland’s history as a working class, racially diverse city all add up to, as Almanza puts it, “these pockets of concentration of people who have grown up in our city and are still here but do not have the resources to continue to pay and live and thrive in the city.”

But as demand for Meals on Wheels service has grown, overall funding has been shrinking. The program relies on a combination of public and private money for its $500,000 yearly budget. Charitable donations of all kinds are still below their pre-recession peak. While in past years the City of Oakland had given up to $100,000 to the program, this past year, that number was zero. Almanza says forced cuts from “sequestration” have meant federal funding is also down.

“There's a lot of talk right now about our aging population in the United States and I think automatically people think, well, if there's an aging population, of course our government is going to adjust costs and have dollars follow seniors more. That is absolutely not the case.”

Hot meals used to go out five days a week, but over the past few years, BACS has downsized to three deliveries a week. This means a hot meal on the day of delivery, and a sandwich or something cold for the next day, when there is no delivery. Though nutritional needs are still being met, this schedule means fewer chances to do the kind of personal check-ins that are an integral part of the service.

Those are the things that have made such a difference for seniors like Ben Haywood. He says he’s going to start looking for work when his health improves more, and he knows that at a certain point he’ll no longer qualify for Meals on Wheels. For now, though, he says he’s truly grateful for the assistance.

“I can count on that good human patronage, every week. And it’s part of my life, now,” he says. “That couldn't be eaten, that doesn't give calories. But spiritually, it makes a person. You know, good spirits beget good spirits.”