Meals on Wheels delivers care and connection across Sebastian County

·4 min read
Allie Hicks, a driver with Meals on Wheels in Sebastian County, delivers food to a home.
Allie Hicks, a driver with Meals on Wheels in Sebastian County, delivers food to a home.

Every Monday through Friday, Allie Hicks loads up a van of homemade meals for “the most fulfilling job that I’ve ever had.”

“I mean it’s 1000% worth it,” said Hicks, a driver for Meals on Wheels in Sebastian County. “It’s not like when I was a CNA. Sometimes you would have people that didn’t want to see you … It’s nice to just come and everyone’s genuinely happy to see you.”

Hicks, who joined the program in October last year, delivers to 48 residences spanning from southside Fort Smith to Bonanza to Sebastian Lake.

At each home, she packs together the day's meal - a chicken leg, green beans, and macaroni salad - with additional items like bread and cookies. She then knocks on the door, greeting the person and checking in on them.

“They’re just happy to get a homecooked meal because they can’t cook for themselves, and a lot of times, they don’t have family that’ll come cook for them,” Hicks said.

Throughout her route, individuals shared their gratitude for the program and for meals, especially the positive impact on their health and wellbeing.

Meals on Wheels, a national organization addressing senior hunger and isolation, operates locally out of the seven senior centers in Sebastian County, with three in Fort Smith, one each in Lavaca, Greenwood, Mansfield and Hartford.

The seven centers served 908 people through the home delivery program and 546 people through its congregate meal program in November 2021. In total, 21,945 meals were cooked, served and delivered that month.

Deanna Rice, executive director of the Sebastian Retired Citizens Association, which oversees the seven senior centers, said about 90% of people served by the center are on a fixed income and about 60% are living at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

The congregate and home delivery meal programs are age-based rather than income-based, requiring that the person be 60 years old or older. For the home delivery program, the person must also be homebound “meaning you cannot leave the home without the assistance of someone else,” Rice said.

The lack of income requirements opens the door to support for older adults facing other barriers to food security, including being “unable to navigate the kitchen or prepare their meal due to physical or mental disadvantage,” according to the Arkansas Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

The program also serves as a regular check-in to thwart isolation, especially for older adults who face mobility barriers and are unable to leave their homes. Hicks said the drivers often serve as a type of first responder, as they are able to see any changes in the health and wellbeing of their residents.

According to Meals on Wheels America, 92% of the people served say the program is key to living independently in their own homes.

Fellow drivers in the Sebastian County Meals on Wheels program stressed the impact of personal connections that accompany the daily meals.

Although his time is limited due to the number of stops, Brother Alexander, a driver, is intentional about “talking to them about how they’re doing or what’s going on or who won the ballgame last night.”

“A lot of times, we’re the only people they see,” he said.

Don, who declined to give his last name, has worked with the senior centers in Sebastian County for more than a decade through AARP, first in Barling and now in Fort Smith.

"A lot of these people, they don’t even have nobody to talk to, and when they see me every day, pretty much about the same time, a lot of them want to talk,” he said. “... It’s very rewarding. You get to meet people from all over. I just hope if something happens to me, somebody will think about me and bring me a meal, if I’m ever sick and shut-in.”

How to sign up for meal programs

For anyone interested in signing up for the meal programs offered by the Sebastian Retired Citizens Association, they can call the main office at 479-648-9970.

The main office will connect the person with the appropriate center in Fort Smith, Lavaca, Greenwood, Mansfield or Hartford.

This article originally appeared on Fort Smith Times Record: Meals on Wheels addresses hunger and isolation in Sebastian County

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