Delivering Hope

For Many Seniors, Meals on Wheels Is More Than a Meal — It’s a Lifeline


Meals on Wheels of Polk County offers locals more than just a meal. It offers a lifeline, and not just to the people receiving the meals.

Established as a support network for our Polk County communities, the organization is an essential thread in the area’s fabric, weaving together human connection and compassion. 

Of course, hot turkey dinners play a big role in that — but they’re only a small part of the bigger story. 

At face value, Meals on Wheels of Polk County, located in Winter Haven, delivers one large hot meal every weekday to housebound individuals who have difficulties preparing their own food. 

While the organization is not dedicated solely to the elderly, most of its recipients are older than 65. About 10% need meals for other reasons. Currently, MOW serves about 650 seniors, a number that nearly doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic and hasn’t declined much since. 

It’s not just about the food — although a quick peek at the delicious menu is enough to make just about anyone sign up for that reason alone. 

Many seniors live alone, and a volunteer’s daily visit is the only contact they have throughout the day. For many, the simple act of a warm meal delivered to their door offers comfort and support, allowing them to continue living independently in their own homes. 

Harnessing the “power of the knock,” volunteers not only deliver food but do so with a smile, providing seniors with much-needed socialization. 

Susan Eldridge, the organization’s executive director, is incredibly proud of the work MOW has done in Polk County. She’s not just a casual drop-in, either. She’s been with the organization for more than two decades. 

Although her role initially started in bookkeeping for the nonprofit, her work now is about so much more than the simple dollars and cents. It’s about the people. 

“When you go out on the routes, you can really see why we feed the people, how it helps them stay in their homes,” she says. “The smiles — now that’s the rewarding part!”

And she isn’t the only one who’s fallen in love with the work.

“On any given week, we have around 300 volunteers,” she says. “Some go in pairs, especially delivery drivers, but there are plenty of other roles for volunteers, too.” In addition to serving as delivery drivers, volunteers can help with meal prep or work in the thrift store. 

Along with the work of Meals on Wheels’ dedicated volunteers, the thrift store is a key contributor to the organization’s success. Because the organization is not federally funded, the thrift store provides about 40% of its total income. It is also supported by donations from local companies like Publix, Wawa, Starbucks, Panera, and Longhorn Steakhouse. 

“Everything has gotten so expensive,” Eldridge admits, her words not a surprise given that food prices swelled by nearly 6% in 2023 alone. “There are certainly challenges with getting certain types of food.”

Despite these challenges, Meals on Wheels is impressive. It runs like a well-oiled machine. This is mostly thanks to its intricate network of volunteers and staff members. 

Some are more transient — Eldridge notes that the organization has a spike in volunteers during the winter months, when snowbirds in the area are looking for a way to help out locally during their stay — while others are looking to have a more permanent impact.

She fondly recalls the story of one volunteer, a man who volunteered well into his 90s and has since passed away. He was an outspoken advocate for the program, telling everyone who would listen, “It will make your heart soar! Try it! You will like it.” 

Meals on Wheels is a community of kindhearted souls that doesn’t exclude anyone. Its volunteers include retired adults and students earning community service hours. 

Despite working with more than 800 volunteers throughout the year, Eldridge notes that getting new volunteers — enough to meet the growing demand for services — is her biggest challenge. “We’re always trying to think of creative ways to get the word out,” she says.  

She emphasizes that Meals on Wheels is always looking for volunteers and nobody will be turned away. 

To apply, visit the website at or call (863) 299-1616. You can also call the same number if you or a loved one is interested in signing up for meal delivery. 

“Bring your passion and help our community!” says one volunteer, and Eldridge echoes this rallying cry. 

“Just try it,” she says. “You don’t have to commit. There’s something for everyone. Most of us have to have a job. If you have one where you know you’re helping people… that’s why we do it.”

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