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Huge demand as Meals on Wheels PLUS of Manatee moves forward in 2021

CEO says Meals on Wheels PLUS will continue to deliver in meeting huge demand in Manatee County in 2021.

Jennifer Hoffman, the president of the Rotary Club of Anna Maria Island, and Paula Schwartz, of the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch, package meals for Meals on Wheels PLUS in December. Courtesy photo
Jennifer Hoffman, the president of the Rotary Club of Anna Maria Island, and Paula Schwartz, of the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch, package meals for Meals on Wheels PLUS in December. Courtesy photo
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The Daybreak Adult Day Center in Lakewood Ranch is now unusually quiet for a facility which normally would be filled with the conversation and laughter of seniors.

Even though the calendar has moved to 2021, Daybreak's closure to on-site participants is another sign the COVID-19 pandemic isn't ready to let up.

It's also is more proof that Maribeth Phillips, the president and chief executive officer of Meals on Wheels PLUS of Manatee, faces a new year with many of the same challenges her nonprofit faced in 2020.

Meals on Wheels PLUS operates Daybreak, which closed last March because it can't bring together at-risk seniors in close proximity. That doesn't mean their well-being isn't still a priority.

Phillips' staff delivers masks, puzzle books and "Sunshine" cards to the seniors who normally would attend Daybreak along with calling them to make sure they are all right. The staff continues to offer virtual programming to keep them engaged. Home-delivered meals are available to all Daybreak Friendship Dining Participants to ensure proper nutrition.

Almost every service and program offered by Meals on Wheels PLUS since the pandemic struck last March has been altered in some significant way. The home-delivered meals program was revamped to go from Monday through Friday deliveries to once-a-week deliveries that included frozen meals for all seven days. Instead of the usual interaction between clients and those who delivered meals, the meals were placed outside the door. The clients were divided in half with one half getting meals on Tuesdays and the others on Fridays.

"Our plan is to assume we will be facing this for at least six more months," Phillips said.

It could be even longer, but Phillips has to hope for the best while planning for the worst.

Demand for food in Manatee County's food pantries has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic, putting stress on the Meals on Wheels' Food Bank, as has the amount of home-delivered meals.

Phillips has been juggling all her resources as she tries to do more with less. Her volunteer workforce of about 100 took a huge hit because of the pandemic as many of the volunteers are in their 70s and 80s. Meals on Wheels is only using volunteers 65 or under at the current time.

Since Meals on Wheels has dealt with a huge demand, delivering 750,000 Food4Families meals since March 20, and with less volunteers, the 55 staff members have served in roles they never would have imagined, such as packing and delivering meals. Phillips said she is proud of her staff members for responding to any situation. She also is proud the nonprofit has not had to let go any of its staff members during a difficult time.

She said none of it would have been possible without an amazing response from the community.

The response began in March when an anonymous donor gave more than $100,000 so Meals on Wheels PLUS could repair its roof, put new floors in the pantry and get its buildings at the 811 23rd Ave. E., Bradenton complex's exterior painted. The upgrades allowed the nonprofit to move food it had been storing at a leased warehouse back to the main complex.

"The donation was just unbelievable," Phillips said.

Donations came from individuals, too, and every dime was needed. The School District of Manatee County contacted Meals on Wheels PLUS in March and asked if it could provide weekend food for students and their families. Through the Food4Families program, Meals on Wheels PLUS provided breakfast, lunch and dinner for families of five for two days.

Meals on Wheels PLUS received a $198,000 grant for its Food4Families program from Manatee County, which was distributing Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds. It also received $324,000 in CARES Act funding for its Home Delivered Meals program.

"Naturally we had lines of cars coming to the food bank," Phillips said. "We are the only food bank based in Manatee County."

The pandemic had intensified everything.

"Imagine you don't have food because you lost your job," Phillips said.

With so many people out of work, or with less income, the strain was placed on the county's food pantries that are stocked by Meals on Wheels PLUS, which serves 85 pantries and agencies. Some of the panties had to close because its volunteers were all seniors who had to stay home. The demand went to the other food pantries.

It appears to be more of the same in 2021. Meals on Wheels PLUS received $214,000 in donations on Giving Tuesday in December and Suncoast Credit Union presented the nonprofit with a $50,000 donation in December, but just its Food4Families program has been spending $20,000 a week to purchase food. Meals on Wheels PLUS will receive a donation from Mackenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Scott, in a Dec. 15 blog post on Medium, announced she had given $4.16 billion to 384 organizations across all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. The amount of the Meals on Wheels donation has yet to be announced. 

There have been losses, too. The Meals on Wheels fundraisers mostly had to be cancelled. Tropical Nights made $120,000 in 2019, but had to be held virtually in 2020, making $70,000.

To be part of the Meals on Wheels PLUS effort in 2021, Phillips said local citizens can get involved in three major ways. Donations can be made by going to People can continue to do food drives in their neighborhoods. For example, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch collected more than 1,800 pounds of food it donated after a food drive.

Every last can of food helps. And volunteers, under 65 for the time being, are needed to help pack and deliver food. Check the website for information.

"We have had a 100% increase in calls for help," Phillips said as she heads into 2021. Last year we started with 600 home-delivered meals clients and now we have 921."

That being the case, Phillips vows to get the job done.

"In my opinion, this is going to be a long runway of recovery," Phillips said. "But we will continue to get food out to people in need."


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