When Charlotte Apo, 84, hears a knock on her door on Wednesdays around lunchtime, she knows a familiar face is on the other side.

“Meals on Wheels is here,” Barbara Wiggins exclaims, holding a brown bag full of pork loin and corn. “We have your favorite coconut rice. Hot and ready for you.

The steel door of the La Verne mobile park house opens to reveal Apo’s smiling face. She offers 60-year-old Wiggins an inside seat which is kindly rejected. There are 15 more deliveries that afternoon, Wiggins notes.

“It’s always a good time to see you Mrs. Apo,” Wiggins said, checking her name off the delivery log. “I’ll see you next week as usual.” “

As President of La Verne / San Dimas Meals on Wheels for 18 years, Wiggins has forged countless relationships with clients like Apo, becoming a welcome presence for those who, at times, live alone. It’s a role she wouldn’t trade for the world, Wiggins said.

But as many associations, Wiggin’s small, volunteer-run organization has been transformed by the coronavirus pandemic. A combination of factors – decades of high inflation, labor shortages, tight budgets – have all affected day-to-day operations, she said.

The group, along with other Meals on Wheels chapters nearby, have had to adapt as volunteers, especially delivery drivers, have become a popular commodity.

  • Meals on Wheels volunteer Christine Edwards (left) delivers a meal to Richard Logan, 92, in La Verne on Wednesday, December 8, 2021. La Verne / San Dimas Meals on Wheels reported a decline in the number of volunteers these days. recent months, something authorities attribute to the pandemic. Previously, the group averaged around 100 customers before the pandemic, now that number is 70. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin / SCNG)

  • Meals on Wheels volunteer Viviano Alvarez is packing meals in his vehicle for delivery to La Verne on Wednesday, December 8, 2021. La Verne / San Dimas Meals on Wheels has reported a decline in volunteer numbers in recent months, which officials attribute to the pandemic. Previously, the group averaged around 100 customers before the pandemic, now that number is 70. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin / SCNG)

  • Meals on Wheels volunteer Christine Edwards carries a meal as she walks to the front door of a La Verne home on Wednesday, December 8, 2021. La Verne / San Dimas Meals on Wheels reported a declining numbers of volunteers in recent months, something authorities attribute to the pandemic. Previously, the group averaged around 100 customers before the pandemic, now that number is 70. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin / SCNG)

  • Meals on Wheels volunteer Christine Edwards carries a pair of meals to a home in La Verne on Wednesday, December 8, 2021. La Verne / San Dimas Meals on Wheels has reported a decline in volunteer numbers in recent months, this that officials attribute to the pandemic. Previously, the group averaged around 100 customers before the pandemic, now that number is 70. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin / SCNG)

Once equipped with a roster of around 75 volunteers, La Verne / San Dimas Meals on Wheels now has fewer than 50 helpers, Wiggins said. Many of those who left were long-time delivery drivers, while others were couples who volunteered in their spare time.

The decline in volunteer numbers has left Wiggins and others to take over at a time when meal delivery services are urgently needed as older and vulnerable groups of people choose to stay indoors due to the pandemic.

What caused the decrease in available hands? The reasons vary but they are all attributed to the pandemic, said Christine Edwards, vice president of La Verne / San Dimas Meals On Wheels. Much of the organization’s volunteer base is itself part of the high-risk population, which has resulted in the departure of many, she said.

Replacing these volunteers has proven to be a daunting task.

“So when COVID hit, I mean half the volunteers quit and they just never came back,” Edwards said. “We haven’t been the same since, but someone has to deliver these meals, right?” “

Meals on Wheels volunteer Barbara Wiggins is preparing meals for delivery to La Verne on Wednesday, December 8, 2021. La Verne / San Dimas Meals on Wheels has reported a decline in volunteer numbers in recent months, which officials say attribute to the pandemic. Previously, the group averaged around 100 customers before the pandemic, now that number is 70. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin / SCNG)

“People always want their food”

The group has served the towns of La Verne and San Dimas since 2003, delivering nutritious meals five days a week to people who live alone, cannot cook, or have dietary restrictions. Meals are prepared hot and fresh in La Verne’s Hillcrest kitchens, with guests paying $ 5 per plate.

In recent weeks, there have been five routes with around 70 meals to be delivered per day, up from 100 before the pandemic, according to organizers. But even with fewer meals, getting them to people hasn’t been easier.

What was once a typical hour of volunteering can now last up to two or three hours due to a lack of drivers and hands available to pack food. People also don’t want to carpooling with strangers due to COVID-19 issues, Edwards said, which lengthens the delivery process.

“We had to change most of our operations. We’re packing food on the outside now and we’re relying on fewer and fewer people, ”said Edwards, noting volunteers have called in sick in recent months. “It’s difficult but people still want their food.”

AT Pomona Meals on Wheels, operational changes are also underway, said manager Allen Espinosa. The group no longer relies solely on volunteers. Nowadays, Doordash makes deliveries.

Partnering with Goodwill, the Pomona Chapter contracted with the food delivery app to make regular stops throughout the Pomona Valley, a move that was taken out of caution to help deliveries in the event of an outbreak. of COVID-19.

“We have been very successful in doing everything to ensure that no one misses a meal,” said Espinosa. “Like anything else, we have to change over time. “

AT Shepard’s Pantry, a local food delivery service similar to Meals on Wheels, which serves the towns of Glendora and Irwindale, demand has stabilized since the early days of the pandemic, said executive director Joanna Hirasuna.

A large majority of its volunteer force is made up of young people, a departure from the older group who helped before March 2020. Hirasuna said this can be attributed to a change in habits and routines caused by the pandemic.

“It’s bittersweet to see a lot of our older volunteers leave, but with more young people at home now, they’ve stepped up to help get things done,” Hirasuna said. “It really is a blessing in disguise.”

Although the decline in the number of volunteers has not been so drastic since Meals on Wheels by the river, he still manages a “skeletal group of volunteers,” said John Welsh, volunteer and board member. He credits the loyal group of people who have remained serving his 14 routes in total across the county.

With gas prices rising in the region, Welsh said it’s no surprise that fewer people are volunteering.

“You’re asking someone to donate their time and money for gasoline, it’s a tough sell in these times,” Welsh said. “Our phones don’t ring exactly for volunteers, but we make them work. “

A national trend

The lack of volunteers is not an exclusive challenge in Southern California, said Jenny Young, vice president of communications for Meal on wheels America. For nearly two years, locals across the country saw an unprecedented need for services as the number of volunteers declined, she said.

According to Meals on Wheels America, 88% of local programs reported their operating costs increased during the pandemic. In addition, in July 2021, programs were still serving an average of 57% more meals than before the pandemic.

“Programs are always in high demand, but as we’ve seen with almost everything else, operational costs have increased as well,” Young said.

What’s more, nearly half of all Meals on Wheels programs across the country cannot continue serving customers without increased funding, according to the national organization.

Still, efforts have been made to help struggling chapters. Meals on Wheels America funneled $ 25 million to local programs in 2020, with some vendors receiving up to $ 100,000. This was used to replenish food and supplies, subsidize additional transportation, and offset personnel costs.

This financial support, however, does not completely solve the workforce problems.

“Before COVID, three-quarters of the volunteers were 55 and older and they themselves were at high risk (for COVID-19) and therefore, did not want to go door-to-door,” Young said. “We have seen a change that may not revert to what it was before. “

This is the reality that volunteers like Wiggins say they have come to terms with.

While the job doesn’t get any easier, Wiggins said, when someone opens their door for deliveries, the payoff is just as significant. It’s the relationships she has with clients like Apo that makes those few hours of her day worth it, she said.

“You can’t help but suffocate a little bit when you find out that a client is passing away or when they move,” Wiggins said. “They really make it all worth it.”

Another change is expected soon, Wiggins said. The La Verne / San Dimas group will finally have its own website after years of work mainly through word of mouth and other means. She hopes the new site will result in more donations to support the program and possibly more volunteers.