Featured in The Daily Memphian
By Sally Jones Heinz
MIFA has been on the front lines of addressing hunger and food insecurity in Memphis for 50 years. For many, putting food on the table is a year-long challenge. And each year the holidays seem to heighten the critical need among our vulnerable neighbors.
For example, when school is out, the demand on parents to provide meals their children usually receive at school can be daunting. Last fiscal year, MIFA Emergency Services distributed more than 11,000 food vouchers, which are redeemed by recipients at area food pantries. Already this fiscal year, we have distributed nearly 6,000 vouchers; November and December are traditionally peak months for food voucher requests.
Since 1976, MIFA Meals on Wheels has provided meals to area seniors. Our clients tell us that the program gives them access to more than one meal a day, helps them eat healthier foods, and even helps them continue to live independently at home.
A recent partnership with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare confirmed that these results are real: an analysis of patients referred to Meals on Wheels showed a 21% decrease in hospital utilization after a year of receiving meals. A meal costs about $8 to prepare and deliver, so it’s a simple and economical way to positively affect the health of our senior neighbors.
We want to know how well this program works because we want to be prepared to serve more as the senior population grows. By 2035, the U.S. Census Bureau projects seniors will outnumber youth for the first time in U.S. history; in Shelby County, we expect a 50% increase in the number of seniors by then. Even now, the Aging Commission of the Mid-South’s waiting list for Meals on Wheels is close to 600.
In addition to nutrition, Meals on Wheels offers another benefit: For many of the 1,200 homebound seniors we serve each weekday, the volunteer who delivers the meal is the client’s only human contact in a day. Like other social determinants of health, isolation has physical consequences too, and 53% of our clients for home-delivered meals report feeling lonely at least some of the time. That level of isolation is difficult for many of us to imagine, especially during the holidays.
But volunteers help to combat that loneliness by visiting each morning, providing a friendly greeting along with a nutritious meal. These volunteers – more than 70 every day – know how important their service is. But if you ask them, they’ll say they get back more than they give.
For the clients who receive the meals, the impact can feel small or tremendous. Like the client who can walk to her mailbox because she is eating better, the man whose diabetes and arthritis pain prevent him from cooking so he relies on our hot meals, and the woman who is so relieved that we also deliver pet food so she can keep her two puppies with her.
Volunteers even deliver meals on Christmas Day, along with a holiday gift. For many families, it’s a longstanding Christmas morning tradition. One of my favorite stories came from a holiday volunteer, who was greeted at the door by an elderly client in a festive outfit, complete with sparkles and a hat. The volunteer said, “Oh, you must be expecting someone.” The client replied, “I am, honey. I’m expecting you!”
There are many ways to help our neighbors feel less alone during the holidays, and many local organizations working to feed those who are hungry. Memphis has the dubious honor of being labeled the hunger capital of the United States and has the highest rate for senior food insecurity of any metropolitan area at 17.3%. I encourage you to get involved, not just during the Christmas season, but all year, when the need is just as great. You’re sure to get back more than you give.