Feeding the Isolated and Homebound

By Loni Nannini

For 50 years, Mobile Meals of Southern Arizona has been delivering health, dignity and independence to isolated seniors and those with disabilities, one meal at a time.

The milestone is a testament to more than 280 volunteers who serve as the organization’s driving force and became even more significant amid the coronavirus epidemic.

“Our golden anniversary demonstrates that we have a valuable service and strong, sustainable model,” said Leslie Perls, president of Mobile Meals’ board of directors. “It also speaks volumes about the heart and soul of our community. Even though change is inevitable, Mobile Meals has persevered through 50 years of caring for the health and well-being of our community.”

It began in 1970 when the Pima County Medical Society Auxiliary stepped in after the Meals on Wheels program that served aging and chronically ill Tucsonans lost federal funding. The auxiliary spearheaded fundraisers, harnessed volunteer delivery drivers and teamed up with local churches, businesses, hospitals and the University of Arizona Food Service to continue meal service. 

The effort was all-volunteer until 1989. Today, volunteers are the cornerstone of the organization, which has a staff of six and an annual budget of about $750,000. About 68% of funding is provided by individuals and private foundations, while government agencies contribute 9% and the remainder comprises client fees.  

Mobile Meals offers delivery of two freshly prepared meals daily, Monday through Friday. It provides medically tailored, special-diet and regular-diet meals for 200 adults unable to shop or cook for themselves.

The food is prepared at hospitals and healthcare facilities, then delivered throughout Southern Arizona. Partners include Tucson Medical Center,          Banner – University Medical Center Tucson and Banner – UMC South Campus, Fellowship Square retirement community, Encompass Health Rehabilitation Institute of Tucson, Carondelet Health Network, Community Partners Inc. and La Posada.

Home isolation took on new significance during the coronavirus pandemic, which led to the closing of congregate meal sites and disruption of other social support systems for seniors. 

For vulnerable adults practicing social distancing, Mobile Meals presented a cost-effective option to Uber Eats, DoorDash and other web-based delivery services, said Jennifer Tersigni, interim executive director of Mobile Meals. Clients, about 80% of whom qualify as low income, are charged on a sliding-fee scale and pay between $1 and $10 for two meals daily. 

“Our service comes with a wellness check on the health and safety of our clients, which is key to helping them remain independent,” Tersigni said. “We are the eyes and ears for clients and their family members who want someone to check in and make sure they are okay.”

During the pandemic, Mobile Meals also implemented new safety measures while providing additional help for clients. 

“Because of financial constraints and mobility and transportation issues, many clients don’t have food stored on their shelves or in their refrigerators,” Tersigni said. “When the pandemic started, we assembled and distributed medically specific food boxes. Even if we tell our clients to try to keep a supply of food … for some of them, the food that we bring in each day is all that they eat.”

Mobile Meals has fostered valuable connections for volunteers and clients, said Perls, who became a substitute driver last year.

“When you deliver a meal to someone in need, they are so grateful,” Perls said. “You can immediately see that you have an impact. When you arrive at people’s homes, lock eyes with them, ask how they are doing and get to know them, you develop meaningful relationships that give you a profound sense of purpose.” 

That sense of purpose has been shared by first responders, essential workers, public servants and others who stepped forward when many regular volunteers were forced to self-isolate during the pandemic. Those included U.S. Senate hopeful Mark Kelly and 23 Tucson police officers.

 “We are so grateful to all of these volunteers. They all come highly trained and their mission is similar to ours in that they sign up to serve,” said Tersigni. 

Perls views Mobile Meals’ longevity here as validation of the safety net that small nonprofits offer vulnerable adults. “Things are changing and we are working in real time to be proactive about taking care of our ecosystem,” she said. “A silver lining for us is that we have been an effective organization at serving clients and volunteers to ensure the health, dignity and independence of vulnerable adults.” 

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