In her mobile home in Warrenville, Florence George waits every weekday for a knock on her door. That's when Bill Joos, a volunteer with Aiken Senior Life Services, arrives to deliver a hot meal for the day. 

George is one of Aiken County's many homebound seniors who is unable to travel to a grocery store for food supplies or cook meals. Hundreds of people just like her live all across the county and rely heavily on churches, friends or family to ensure they have enough food to eat and receive proper nutrition – if they are lucky enough to have such a support system in place. 

For seniors like George, Aiken Senior Life Service's home delivered meals program for homebound seniors is a "blessing." But the program is about to face a critical shortage of volunteers like Joos who make the deliveries possible due to a new mandate that will add over 200 seniors to the program's already enormous client list, which currently totals around 300 .

"I think (the meals) are wonderful," George said. It's a Tuesday, and she has just been given a hamburger, beans, broccoli and fruit with her meal.

"I really do. As you can see, I'm 81," she said. "I didn't think I was going to live to be this age, but God has a plan for me."

George has only been part of the program for two months, but she has seen a critical need for it in her community.

"There's a lot of people that are homeless," George said. "They need a home, they need food. There are people that walk the roads around here, looking for someone to help them … The blessings I've got – I've got this program."

It is estimated that one in seven South Carolinians – over half a million people – are food insecure. Seniors are considered especially at risk due to deteriorating health problems many face and their lack of access to grocery stores, specially in areas with food deserts.

The meal delivery program, which is funded primarily through state and federal funds, is operated by the Lower Savannah Council of Governments. Their client list is passed on to Aiken Senior Life Services, and the agency utilizes volunteers to carry out the meals to seniors in need.

A 'huge tsunami' of need

There has always been a waitlist – usually with hundreds of names – for the home delivered meal program.

Aimee Hanna, director of Aiken Senior Life Services, said the waitlist is due to a "high" number of homebound seniors in the county and limited grant funding for the meal program. The list is determined by each senior's nutritional risk factor, with the most at-risk, like diabetics, receiving priority.

Only seniors who are over 60 and qualify as homebound (unable to leave their home without great difficulty due to disability, poor health, etc.) are considered for the home delivered meals program.

"Recently, the South Carolina Department on Aging has given a directive to the area agencies on aging in South Carolina to reduce the collective waitlist," Hanna said. "Funding is being made available to help with this undertaking, but it's a monumental undertaking."

Hanna said Aiken Senior Life Services currently serves about 300 meals out of their headquarters in downtown Aiken to seniors across the county every weekday. That's approximately 1,500 meals per week, which are cooked and catered by a senior service agency in Orangeburg County. The agency is closed on weekends and major holidays.

The new funding has helped pay for more meals, but the issue of delivery, Hanna said, is completely up to the agency. 

Aiken Senior Life Services currently has about 226 volunteers – many of which operate on a semi-regular basis – and the organization is going to need many more to keep up with the flood of seniors in need entering the program.

"We need more volunteers," Hanna said. "A lot more volunteers. This is a huge tsunami that is coming toward us. In order to make this directive happen, we need an army of boots-on-the-ground people to kind of undertake this effort." 

Seniors from all walks of life

Hanna also wants to dispel any preconceived notion about what nutrition risk might look like in Aiken. All seniors who are finding it more and more difficult to reach food supplies and cook are in need – one client on their list even lives in Woodside Plantation. And not all nutrition risk comes from lack of access to a vehicle – it can also be brought on by a sudden or severe illness.

Larry Nash lives on Aiken's Southside with his wife, Vivian. After she was diagnosed with dementia, Nash became her caretaker and was faced with an overwhelming amount of tasks, including trying to get her adequate nutrition.

"It's wonderful," Larry said about the program. "I used to try to – I'm not a cook. And I've got so many other things to do – take care of the house, take care of the dog, the laundry and everything. When they called and said she qualified for Meals on Wheels, I was really excited. Some other people, said, 'Wow, you won't like the meals.' She loves them. Anytime they bring a meal, she'll eat everything. Her favorite's the meatloaf. She likes meatloaf and mashed potatoes with carrots." 

Vivian has been enrolled in the delivery program for over a year now, but it took a while before she had access. Like many seniors in the county, she had to wait to be prioritized for the list.

"We were on a waiting list for a couple of years," Nash said. "Then they called and said, 'Vivian is ready, she's qualified for this program.' And I said I had given up on it. And they told me they have such a big waiting list."

Larry said he hopes the program "never goes away."

"It's been a huge help for me," he said. "Their meals are more nourishing than what I would provide. I was getting frozen dinners for us down at Kroger. My cooking skills are scrambled eggs and grilled cheese sandwiches, stuff like that. She's getting better nourishment than she was before the program." 

Joan Clark joined the home delivered meals program this year. Another resident of Aiken's Southside, Clark has had a cancer scare and has fallen seven times in five years. She cannot take her dog for regular walks anymore, and cooking has become a potentially dangerous activity for her.

"The food that I've gotten, oh man, it is delicious," Clark said. "I am not kidding. I eat every single thing. And then, of course, I have a fruit and a dessert and milk. The food is delicious, and I feel so good about having this done for me."

Clark, 85, knows other seniors in the area who are in need of the delivery program.

"I think it's very important," Clark said. "I have a friend who's been in really bad shape, 80 years old, been having a lot of health problems and falling. When I was cooking, I used to take him a meal. He's got a sister, 92, who takes care of him, but then she fell ... I think there's a lot of people who need it who don't even know about it. A lot of elderly people. I used to help so much – that's my gift from God – but now I need someone to help me. This program, I would recommend it highly, to anyone that really needs it." 

Volunteers are key to delivery program

Hanna worries that, without more volunteers, reaching more seniors like Joan Clark, Vivian Nash and Florence George will be extremely difficult. Some volunteers, like Joos, are currently running double routes to try and meet the needs of seniors across Aiken County.

Hanna said volunteers can apply by contacting Aiken Senior Life Services. A simple background check will be conducted, and volunteers will be trained by experienced veterans like Joos.

North Augusta and Gloverville are the routes with the most critical need for more volunteers, according to Aiken Senior Life Services staff. 

"You will be assigned a route, and there will be 10, maybe 12, homes you would deliver meals to on that route," Hanna said. "And you can do that as often as you like. You can do it once every two weeks, or five days a week, as long as we have volunteers who are coming forward to help us."

Hanna said the whole process only takes about one hour to complete – enough to be done during a lunch break from work.

The seniors are given a nutritious meal with milk and dessert, an Aiken Standard newspaper and daily interaction with a volunteer, who drive their own vehicles on the routes.

"It's more than delivering just a meal," Hanna said. "You're providing that daily contact with that senior and checking in on them on a regular basis. A rapport does develop between the volunteer and the senior."

The mandate dictates that the waiting list for the program must "go away completely," according to Hanna. This also affects the organization's ability to deliver to seniors who live far away from the Aiken Senior Life Services headquarters.

"For those seniors that are out in the country, that are way out, we have to deliver, not hot meals, but frozen meals," Hanna said. "That's just how it works. Again, they're still nutritious, they still meet the one-third (recommended dietary allowance) requirement. But we have our own team here at the agency that gets these frozen meals out, but we have just one (agency) vehicle. One van that allows us to do that."

To feed more people on the team's frozen meal list, Hanna said Aiken Senior Life Services needs another van – an older, donated model – to take over some homes on the new routes. Volunteers, unlike the agency team, drive shorter routes and use their personal vehicles.  

Hanna said approximately 70 people are on the frozen meal route, which takes roughly three hours to complete. With another van, that time could be cut in half so seniors receive their meal earlier in the day.

"Bottom line, we need a lot more people to help with this effort," Hanna said.

To learn more about Aiken Senior Life Services, including the home-delivered meals program and how to volunteer, call 803-648-5447 or visit aikensenior.org

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.