Tampa Meals on Wheels expands, delivering faster and farther

Many of us went into hibernation mode during the COVID-19 quarantine, but Meals on Wheels of Tampa went into overdrive, ramping up its headquarters and accessibility, reaching some of the most food-insecure areas of east Hillsborough County. 

“We are now in Riverview and Gibsonton, and we have our sights on moving into southeast Hillsborough County, Ruskin and Wimauma,” Cindy Vann, MOW of Tampa Senior Director of Mission Engagement, tells 83 Degrees Media

A member of Meals on Wheels America, MOW of Tampa sets itself apart as a privately funded nonprofit. In doing so, the organization can offer more flexibility about qualifications, and according to Vann, recipients can get qualified faster. 

“For us, if somebody calls our office by noon and we go through the intake process with them over the phone, we can serve them the next day,” Vann assures. 

Also, if someone has a car but cannot stand for long enough periods to cook or have other mitigating factors, MOW of Tampa can make determinations on eligibility on a case-by-case basis. The people who would otherwise fall through the cracks but have an urgent need can get meals delivered from the Tampa nonprofit.

“We serve people who, for whatever reasons, be it a disability or perhaps a temporary illness, have come to be homebound. We have someone we're serving who now is in their twenties,” Vann adds. “We have a recipient who's 105 and still living on their own in their own house. So, there’s a real wide range because we are privately funded and not government funded. We have such flexibility regarding who we can serve.”

In the past two years, Meals On Wheels of Tampa has constructed a new facility with 9,600 square feet of administrative office space and a larger commercial kitchen, which produces food for deliveries and other nonprofit organizations throughout Tampa.The building also has LEED certification, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

“Our new facility is double the size of our previous building and has an incredible, purpose-built, kitchen which enables MOW to greatly expand the number of recipients we serve,” Vann says.

Along with recruiting volunteers via an easy-to-navigate web portal and orientations scheduled twice a month, Meals on Wheels of Tampa uses a mutually beneficial program to enlist workplaces to get involved with food delivery.  

“Our Adopt-a-Route partners include the Suncoast Credit Union, Whitney Transport, Quest and PAR Inc.,” Vann says, adding that they also involve local rotary clubs and longtime partner, St Mary’s School.

Special events and drives also provide opportunities for workplace involvement. Suncoast Credit Union won awards for its sponsorships and partnerships with MOW of Tampa, volunteering and sponsoring the Nourish Homebound Breakfast, the Holiday Gift Bag Drive, MOW Fun Run, Produce on Wheels, and more.

Every third Saturday of the month, nine months out of the year, they also provide a bag of fresh produce to each one of their recipients. Drivers must be 18 years old, but some volunteers take their children along, setting a positive example.

“Helping in the communities we call home is at the core of who we are,” says Donna Moses, risk management and member advocate at Suncoast Credit Union. “This past year, as we learned to adapt in the time of COVID, our work with Meals on Wheels was more important than ever. ... It invigorates us as employees knowing we have the power to lead with the heart and nourish and enrich our community both figuratively and literally.”

Those warm-fuzzy feelings coworkers and others can get from volunteering for Meals on Wheels are “hardwired” in all of us, Vann says. “I'm not the greatest cook and I don't to have to cook a meal, but when I hand people a meal that they are waiting for and they need it, it is a feeling that feeds a place in my soul.”

It can be fun, too, especially when volunteers get to talking with MOW recipients. The stories you’ll hear are often memorable, Vann says.

“It takes about an hour and a half to deliver a route, depending on how chatty you are -- it takes me a little longer,” Vann says with a laugh. “There are people who have rich stories, or they have been in Tampa or the area for a long time and you learn a little about local history. They can be wise and funny and have such a sensitivity and a touch of light about them. During my most busy days when I just think I don't have time to go deliver a route, I gain so much from just slowing down and listening -- they have a warm appreciation and grace about them.” 
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Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto grew up in Clearwater and now has a home in the Ocala National Forest. Between writing assignments, she's teaching English courses at Saint Leo University and other colleges. Julie has written arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine ArtsCoast Journal, Creative Loafing, Florida travel pieces  (Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville), the Cade Museum, and features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment editor for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.