Every weekday around noon, Sherry Hatcher answers a knock on her door. The 70-year-old lives alone in a highrise apartment building on Gray Highway, and her daily visitor is a welcome break from the quiet of her otherwise lonely home.
Hatcher is one of the 1,200 home-bound residents of Middle Georgia who receives home-delivered lunches from Meals on Wheels of Middle Georgia each week. She suffers from arthritis, spinal disc issues and fibromyalgia, which makes it difficult for her to stand for a long time and cook.
Until Hatcher got off the wait list for Meals on Wheels, she said she ate a lot of sandwiches on the days she didn’t feel up to cooking. Now, she knows she’ll always get at least one nutritious meal a day. And she also knows that someone will stop by to check in on her.
“Some days I’m really not feeling well, and it just helps me for somebody to see that I’m OK or not and just to see a person with a smiling face,” Hatcher said.
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About 75 percent of Meals on Wheels’ clients suffer from food insecurity, which means they lack access to affordable, healthy food. According to the hunger advocacy organization Feeding America, over 1.5 million people struggle with hunger statewide. That’s about one in seven Georgia residents.
A study by County Health Rankings and Roadmaps found that 23 percent of Bibb County residents are food insecure, and the rate was about 15 percent in the three other Middle Georgia counties this Meals on Wheels serves: Crawford, Jones and Monroe. The national average is 12 percent of households, or 41.2 million Americans.
Food insecurity, also called food hardship, is linked to poor health, said Randy Rosso, senior research and policy analyst at the Food Research and Action Center.
“A lot of research has been done on health outcomes related to food security,” Rosso said. “And it consistently shows that people who are food insecure or facing food hardship have lower health outcomes in general, greater depression, anxiety, to some extent obesity levels, diet-related illnesses.”
Rosso said food hardship not only takes a toll on the health of individuals but also on the community as a whole.
“If a number of people are suffering from food hardship, there are going to be more illnesses, more visits to the hospital, particularly people who don’t have insurance. It’s going to cost the community in the long run,” he said.
Tanya Graham-Simms, executive director of Meals on Wheels, said 73 percent of her clients have diabetes. Besides age and income, nutrition and health also play a role in who qualifies for the meal-delivery service. The organization caters specifically to those who can’t easily cook for themselves or leave home for their meals.
“The mission of Meals on Wheels is to provide seniors and disabled consumers in the community with a hot, nutritious meal,” Graham-Simms said. “And we also provide hope, comfort and friendship with the volunteer or staff person that we have to go out to deliver that meal.”
The organization provides more than 300,000 meals to those in need each year, at a cost of $6.66 per meal. But its wait list is 336 people long and growing. Meals on Wheels receives funding from foundations and private donations, but the bulk of its budget is covered by government grants, which the organization only gets if it matches state and federal contributions through its own fundraising efforts.
But Graham-Simms said funding cuts have made it harder to take people off the wait list.
“Then I got to think about, ‘OK, when I take them off the wait list, I got to be able to serve them 260 meals for that year and then make sure I can feed them the following year with extra funds that I may receive,” she said.
For years, Macon-Bibb County has set aside funding in its budget to help Meals on Wheels match its funding from the Middle Georgia Regional Commission. But this year, it’s unclear if the organization will receive the $47,300 it proposed. As the debate over the property tax rate ensues, Graham-Simms and her staff are holding out hope some county money will come through.
“We don’t want to take anybody that we have off or have our clients worrying about where their next meal is coming from,” Graham-Simms said. “So our focus now is to make sure that we keep moving forward, so we can still serve those that we are serving, and then we’re still thinking about those that we have on the waiting list.”
In fiscal 2017, Meals on Wheels’ expenses exceeded its net income by $43,400. The organization received more than $1.7 million in government funding, including $43,300 from Macon-Bibb County. But it wasn’t enough to cover the more than $2 million it costs to run a nonprofit organization that provides meals for over 1,000 Middle Georgia residents in need. If Meals on Wheels loses its county funding, Graham-Simms and her staff will have to scramble to make ends meet.
“When you don’t have money, though, you just kinda beat the bricks and do a lot of begging. So that’s what we’ll do,” said Tamica Freeman, the organization’s director of social services.
Freeman said she receives 15 to 20 calls a day from people who want to join the wait list. She then refers them to the Area Agency on Aging, which assesses their level of need and determines whether they qualify for the free meal service. If someone makes it onto the list, he or she will typically wait nine to 12 months before receiving meals.
But clients often tell Freeman it’s worth the wait.
“A lot of times, our clients get the meals, but it’s the other stuff that comes with the meals that just make them fall in love,” Freeman said. “They get that personal contact. They get to see people every day. And we’ve had some say, ‘Well, I get up and put my clothes on because I know my meal’s coming today.’ So, you know, it ain’t just about the funding portion. It’s about everything that goes with it.”
Beyond the 1,200 Middle Georgia residents who receive hot meals from Meals on Wheels, thousands more go hungry each day. But multiple local organizations have coordinated to provide a range of services and meals to help combat food insecurity in the area, including Daybreak, Rescue Mission of Middle Georgia, local churches, Loaves and Fishes Ministry and Macon Outreach at Mulberry.
‘It’s a hurting feeling’
Latisha Washington used to go days without eating.
“It hurts,” Washington said. “Your stomach constantly growling and headaches, dry mouth. It’s bad. It’s a hurting feeling.”
Washington said her hunger would make her so sick that she could barely talk or move. When her hunger started to keep her up day and night, she knew she needed help.
One Wednesday in August, Washington walked into Loaves and Fishes Ministry on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Social Security card in hand.
“I need to get some help from somewhere instead of sitting here, you know, hurting myself and going through this,” Washington said. “And I know there’s people out there that’ll help.”
Loaves and Fishes donates bags of groceries to 60 households in need each week, which comes to over 3,000 bags of groceries in a year.
“We work with a lot of families with children, and we also work with a lot of senior citizens that are on low incomes, and the bag or bag-and-a-half of groceries that they get from us helps them through the month,” said Judy Sexton, executive director of Loaves and Fishes.
Washington doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter image of food insecurity. The 31-year-old is married, works at Panera Bread and is studying for her GED. But lately, she hasn’t been able to stretch her paycheck far enough to cover all of her expenses.
Sexton said the ministry serves more than just the homeless and unemployed.
“We serve – work with a lot of people who are the working poor,” she said. “They may hit a spot where they’ve lost a job, or lost a breadwinner out of the home, just during the summer need extra food with the kids at home. So we may see people for three or four months and then never see ‘em again once they stabilize.”
But Sexton said sometimes former clients return months later hoping to give back.
“They’ll bring canned goods and bring things in to us,” she said.
Loaves and Fishes also provides clothing, prescription medication and other resources to its clients, but Sexton said the organization focuses on food access because of the pivotal role it plays in the local community.
“Food insecurity leads to so many things. If it’s children, it’s gonna make it much harder for them in school, if they don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Sexton said, adding, “Adults, it means more trips to the ER, more hospitalizations, things like that.”
She said the ministry provides both food as well as financial aid for prescription medication to help keep clients healthy.
“It’s important, and we’re glad to be here,” Sexton said. “We’ve been here for a long time, and we are glad to be here and be a part of this.”
‘It could happen to anybody’
In the past few months, Takisha Smith has become a regular for lunch at Macon Outreach at Mulberry. At about 11:30 on a Friday morning, she, her 20-year-old daughter and two granddaughters munched on fried chicken and salad at a folding table near the back of the dining room at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church.
Smith has five kids, and her family’s spent nights at the Salvation Army shelter, the Macon Inn and even on the street since they were evicted after a house fire last year.
“It’s kind of rough because I had to bury my aunt last month, and she was my support. So I really don’t have much support anymore,” she said as tears started to slide down her cheeks. “So I just try to do what I can to stay positive for my kids.”
Smith lost her job at Helping Out People Environments in 2011, which led her back to school to become a billing and coding specialist. She graduated from Virginia College last June but hasn’t been able to find a job. Since the eviction, it’s been hard for Smith to get back on her feet. But Macon Outreach has provided her with meals, clothing for her kids and transportation to job interviews.
“There’s only a handful of places here in Macon that help people that are down on their luck,” Smith said. “And I think this is a wonderful place because they have good people that come in and, you know, out of the kindness of their heart, they do things to help other people.”
Nancy Taylor started volunteering at Macon Outreach with her church about a year ago.
“When I first came here, the first thing that hit me was the fact that they could not look me in the eye,” she said. “They kept their eyes downcast, and they just shuffled through the line. And that hurt, that they were reduced to that feeling less than an equal.”
But Taylor said she knows what it’s like to go hungry. She struggled to put food on the table while raising her young kids about 30 years ago.
“I didn’t have any place like this to come to,” Taylor said. “I was living out in Wilkinson County, and there wasn’t anything like this. I was working full time but just barely making ends meet because I had three children to support.”
Taylor said her own experiences have helped her to better understand others facing hardship.
“It could happen to anybody, and it could very well be happening to people that you know, and you’re just not aware of it,” she said. “It could happen to you at any time.”
Before Smith was evicted, she used to donate canned goods to Macon Outreach. She never thought she’d find herself on the receiving end. But Smith hopes she’ll climb out of her rut soon.
“Within the next couple weeks, I’m hoping to have my own home, be employed and be stable again,” she said.
In the meantime, Smith’s thankful she can turn to Macon Outreach for help.
“I think this place is very important,” she said, her soft voice trembling as she fought back tears. “And I don’t think anyone should try to take this away from the community because we need this.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.