By AMARACHI AMADIKE, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Torontonians are experiencing an unprecedented level of food insecurity, and most residents are by now aware of the struggles faced by many food banks in the city when it comes to lack of donations.
A similar challenge is also being faced by many non-profit organizations who are finding difficulty attracting volunteers to provide community assistance for programs such as Meals on Wheels.
One such organization is WoodGreen Community Services which is seeking help from local residents for its Meals On Wheels program, a service dedicated to increasing food security and independent living for seniors and adults with disabilities.
For more than 25 years, WoodGreen’s Meals On Wheels program– in partnership with Hennick Bridgepoint Hospital in Riverdale which provides the meals – has served many of Toronto’s seniors who may otherwise be left without an accessible source of nutritious food.
The program has grown exponentially over the years.
“The need is there,” said WoodGreen Meals On Wheels co-ordinator Asha Raghavan. “The numbers are going up, but unfortunately the number of volunteers is going down.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic’s first wave, Meals on Wheels delivered up to 200 times more meals than it had over the same period the year before. Last year, the program delivered about 55,000 meals to residents who reside anywhere from the Don Valley Parkway in the west to Victoria Park Avenue to the east, and south of Danforth Avenue to Lake Ontario.
Raghavan told Beach Metro Community News that this decline in volunteer participation is in part due to hardships of the pandemic. The program has struggled to attract the same level of assistance and volunteers that it had prior to COVID-19.
Another reason for the recent low turnout is the demographic of the WoodGreen’s volunteer base. A lot of the community members offering their help are retirees who are only available for daytime deliveries.
“We now have about 30 volunteers,” said Raghavan. “We normally have about 80 volunteers per week to run the program.”
Highly understaffed with the number of volunteers expected to further decline over this coming summer, WoodGreen’s Meals On Wheels is still managing to provide the same level of service for its clients who are unable to provide themselves nutritious meals due to physical, cognitive, developmental or psychological limitations.
With about 30,000 meals served so far in 2023, the program is on track to outdo its previous year’s performance.
“We’re currently using paid staff but that’s not sustainable for us to run a service which is purely dependent on volunteers,” said Raghavan. “Some volunteers, instead of doing just the regular one day a week shift, offer to help us out for five days. So that helps.”
Raghavan said that the need for volunteers is steadily increasing with the rise in cost of living.
WoodGreen’s Meals on Wheels program is now servicing “around 600 clients”, 40 of which registered this year.
“We cannot shut down the program. This is one program that is consistent whether it’s rain or shine,” said Raghavan. “COVID or not, we cannot hold up providing meals to clients. So the program is moving, but with great difficulty.”
WoodGreeen’s Meals On Wheels program is looking for volunteers who can commit “just a few hours a week” to the cause, said Raghaven.
Along with providing meals, the volunteers are also a source of wellness checks for clients who have very limited contact with the outside world.
“This is a social issue as well,” said Raghavan. “These are isolated seniors who live in the community. Checking on them makes the contribution – volunteering – even greater than anyone can imagine.”
For more information on how to volunteer for the WoodGreen Meals on Wheels program, please send an email to email@example.com, or call 416-405-5059.
Amarachi Amadike is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Beach Metro Community News. His reporting is funded by the Government of Canada through its Local Journalism Initiative.