Meals on Wheels of Tarrant County didn’t plan to serve 1.7 million meals until 2030. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic put pressure on the nonprofit, increasing the number of meals served by 90% from 2019 to now.

“People who were kind of living on the edge, just barely getting by on their own, throughout the pandemic — their situations have worsened. They really had no other recourse except to reach out to us for help,” Keith Harrison, vice president of marketing with Meals on Wheels, said.

Tarrant County has promised to partner with Meals on Wheels, investing nearly $10 million from the American Rescue Plan Act into a facility expansion, allowing the organization to maintain the number of meals it is providing long term. Now, the county is considering expanding its partnership with Meals on Wheels to provide A/C units to vulnerable populations. 

The Tarrant County Commissioners Court is likely to vote on the partnership next week. The agenda is not yet finalized, Tarrant County spokesman Bill Hanna said. 

The county received requests from the community for air conditioning units to be installed in homes around the county. County staff explored options for distributing A/C units and landed on Meals on Wheels, who would receive the funds, purchase units and coordinate installation and delivery. 

Meals on Wheels provides additional services including reviewing medications, nutrition education, feeding companion pets, minor home repairs and providing products like walkers. The A/C unit program would be a continuation of those services, Harrison said. 

“In our case, elderly people are especially susceptible to heat-related illnesses,” Harrison said. “We will be helping them administer a program for countywide residents who need the unit air conditioners, who are suffering in the heat.”

The program will use $180,000 from the county’s general fund and provide about 200 heating and cooling units, said Kristen Camareno, assistant county administrator. 

Meals on Wheels will receive referrals from social service agencies before delivering the A/C units. Then, Meals on Wheels will recruit contractors to install the units in the homes of residents that request them. 

When demand for services increased during the pandemic, the organization expanded by adding a new supplemental nutrition plan for food insecure residents who were previously ineligible.

Meals on Wheels also added on a meal program previously operated by the non-profit Sixty and Better. The program invites mobile seniors to group meals, rather than delivering the meals to seniors’ homes. The program is designed to provide nutrition and ease feelings of isolation. 

“We are trying to accommodate as many people as we can, due to the heavy number of clients that we’ve had to see and help over the past two years, since COVID — it’s taking a toll on just about everybody,” Philip Gonzalez, marketing specialist with Meals on Wheels, said. “But yes, we have the ability to help these people. That’s the bottom line.”

Meals on Wheels receives about 48% of its funding from a variety of government funding sources and 52% from community donations, Harrison said. While expanding its services, the organization received federal funding through the CARES Act, an economic relief bill passed in 2020.

The organization is also receiving more funding from United Way of Tarrant County, which distributes federal funds through the Older Americans Act. Passed in 1965, the Older Americans Act distributes federal funds to the states and passes the money onto organizations who distribute the funds locally. 

Additional funding during the height of the pandemic allowed Meals on Wheels to expand its programming. The latest infusion of American Rescue Plan Act funds, approved on May 22, will increase the organization’s capacity. 

Its current facility is only 5 years old, but the organization has already outgrown the space. The organization has issued a request for qualifications to provide architectural and engineering services for the building’s expansion. 

The nearly $10 million will go toward significantly increasing freezer space, kitchen storage for produce and dry goods, hiring new staff and van storage. The additional space allows Meals on Wheels to maintain its current level of service, Harrison said. 

The organization committed to providing the operating funds to maintain the programs the expansion would support. 

“We didn’t hesitate to take on all these services during COVID, but it’s not sustainable in the long term,” Harrison said. The county “saw the need to help us create sustainability, so that we didn’t have to start turning away people in the future.”

While Meals on Wheels expands its services, the organization is seeking additional volunteers, Gonzalez said. The heat of summer typically causes the number of volunteers to drop, he said, as services expand more volunteers are needed to meet the demand. 

“We’re really hurting,” Gonzalez said. “We’re seeking as many partners now as we can.”

People looking to volunteer can visit the organization’s website. The organization is planning for an increase in demand in the coming years, even as vaccinations make the ongoing pandemic more manageable. 

“The number of people we’re serving haven’t gone down,” Gonzalez said. “So that in itself just goes to show that it’s probably going to increase before it decreases.”

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Rachel Behrndt

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for fortworthreport.org. She can be reached at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org