Joyce Williams, a retired principal, and George Edwards sort donations at Soup for Seniors in Roanoke. Photo by Sam Dean.

By Sue Lindsey

Joyce Williams did not expect her experience as an educator to lead to helping feed older residents in need during winter, but that’s exactly what happened.

A retired principal of William Byrd Middle School in Roanoke County, Williams, 71, began to volunteer with a program called Soup for Seniors a few years ago and was quickly put on the planning committee.

The 11-year-old program, which has strong community support, last year served 525 Meals on Wheels clients and many others, according to Aimee Lawson, director of development at the Local Office on Aging. Soup for Seniors supplied nonperishable food (mainly cans of soup) to 3,500 needy older people in Roanoke, Botetourt, Craig and Alleghany counties and in the cities of Roanoke, Salem and Covington.

Throughout Virginia, various programs delivered more than 2 million meals to 11,312 people in their homes last year, according to state officials. A similar number of clients received meals in a group setting.

The programs for individuals 60 and older with limited mobility rely primarily on federal funds but also receive state money, grants and donations. Federal funding is not keeping up with the need, according to data from Meals on Wheels America.

Soup for Seniors relies solely on donations, and it occurred to Williams that her connections in the school system might be a good source of soup: “There was already a culture of teaching students to be good stewards, to be philanthropic.”

When she first asked schools to participate in 2012, they donated 2,200 cans of soup. Then Williams began meeting with principals and sending reminders to start collecting soup. Last year, 9,730 cans were donated.

A total of 56,000 cans of soup, tuna and vegetables, as well as cereal and crackers, were distributed in 2017, Lawson said. The goal is similar this year. Food will be collected and bagged Feb. 5-9 and delivered by Valentine’s Day.

AARP Virginia has supported the project with volunteers to fill bags and deliver them, said Brian Jacks, associate state director.

Williams also collects cans from schools unable to deliver them to the assembly site. “If they’ve collected it, by granny, we’re going to get the soup,” she said.

Combating winter woes
Agencies offering home-delivered meals around the state try to get food items with a long shelf life to their clients ahead of winter storms.

The Fairfax County Meals on Wheels program cancels deliveries when public schools are closed. Beth Ann Margetta, the nutrition unit supervisor, said meals are delivered to most clients three days a week, reducing the impact of bad weather. Its 500-plus clients get 11 cold and flash-frozen meals a week.

In the Tidewater area, “snow and ice are our biggest problem,” said Gerald Patesel, vice president for community services for the Peninsula Agency on Aging. “Even if roads are clear, often sidewalks and steps and driveways are not clear, which creates a hazardous situation for the meal delivery staff as well as for volunteers.”

Norm Gold, chief operations officer with FeedMore in the Richmond area, also stressed safety for delivery drivers: “We call the clients to see if they can manage if we can’t get there a day.”

All of the programs depend on volunteers. Roanoke’s Soup for Seniors is completely a community effort, said volunteer Stuart Trinkle, 67.

“One hundred percent of everything we do goes right back to the people who need it,” she said.

To volunteer for Soup for Seniors, call Lawson at 540-345-0451.

Sue Lindsey is a writer living in Roanoke.

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