Pets can do wonders for a senior’s quality of life. Many seniors rely on the relationships they form with their furry friends to avoid loneliness and to feel a sense of purpose. But when there’s not enough food to go around, some seniors may decide to sacrifice some of their own provisions to keep their pets fed and healthy.
Shirley Robinson, who’s 74, said she once worried about how she would find food for her two pet dogs, Lucky and Max. But now, as a client of Meals On Wheels Atlanta’s Pet Pantry program, she gets food for them delivered when the agency’s volunteers deliver food for her. “That is so wonderful,” she said. “That is beautiful.”
MOWA has been serving seniors struggling with hunger since 1965. As the agency grew from its humble beginnings as a soup kitchen to a complex program that serves more than 600,000 meals to metro Atlanta seniors’ each year, staff members realized that seniors providing food for their pets created a problem the agency needed to help address. In 2010, MOWA started providing pet food and pet care items to clients who need them through its Pet Pantry.
“There was a senior who called and was near tears as she expressed her deepest appreciation for her program,” said Chief Innovation & Business Development Director Jason Tucker, who oversees the Pet Pantry. “She had run out of funds, and she had been feeding the dog her food… she was down to her last few dollars, and she was having to make a decision about how to get food for her pets.”
And the need keeps growing.
“Last year we delivered about 3,350 pounds of pet food,” Tucker said. “This year, we anticipate providing 3,500 to 3,600 pounds of food. Next year, in 2023, we project that we may get up to 4,400 pounds of food.”
Through the years, MOWA has adjusted in several ways to best serve the changing needs of their clients. In 2017, when staff members realized that many seniors didn’t get any food outside of the seven meals the agency provided each week, MOWA implemented a breakfast program with shelf-stable breakfast provisions.
Another example of a service that MOWA has expanded to provide is home repairs, enabling seniors to age in place. Coupled with the socialization and camaraderie that comes along with visits from volunteers when they deliver food, these services are vital to helping seniors survive and thrive.
In addition to food for cats and dogs, the Pet Pantry also provides necessities such as litter boxes, leashes, pet food bowls, beds, and even toys. Those supplies are delivered once a month. Roughly 19% of the seniors served by MOWA access the Pet Pantry.
While the majority of the organization’s overall annual funding comes from Meals On Wheels national grants and private fundraising, partnerships such as the Atlanta Humane Society also provide food and goods to the Pet Pantry.
“Our seniors live alone, most of them, so providing that opportunity to connect with a living being is so important to their wellbeing and emotional state,” Tucker said. “Those seniors that have pets have a constant connection and a form of socialization. Seniors look at their pets as part of their family, and it’s so important for us to provide services to the senior and the pet to make the family as a whole healthy and happy.”
This year, with the help of construction partners Choate Construction, ASD SKY, and Design Galleria Kitchen and Bath Studio, MOWA has been renovating its headquarters and building out a new kitchen. Once completed, staff members project they will be able to expand their offerings from more than 1,800 meals every day to 3,500 meals per day.
“We want the community to understand that by supporting Meals on Wheels Atlanta through volunteering or financial support, you are helping hundreds of our senior neighbors and their furry friends. That’s our mission – to support senior independence,” Tucker said.
“Additional programs like the Pet Pantry and the breakfast program, that’s how we try to close the gaps that seniors face that we hear about from our volunteers and the seniors who call in. As we use innovation to think about ways that we can close those gaps for seniors, we really rely on the community to help us through giving their time and financial aid.”
If you’d like to learn more, get involved, or donate to Meals on Wheels Atlanta, visit their website www.mowatl.org/donations.
Correction: In a previous version of this story, the Atlanta Humane Society was incorrectly referred to as the Atlanta Humane Association. We apologize for the error.