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Feeding San Antonio Seniors Complicated By COVID-19

Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Melody Botting knocks on the door of a family in need.

The parking lot at the San Antonio Food Bank was packed with cars and trailers on Tuesday as volunteers tried to fill their cars with food for the elderly. 

Delivering food in the era of COVID-19 is trickier than it used to be, as senior feeding programs try to adjust to a new reality. The people they are targeting to help are also put at risk by their presence. 

To address that threat, food bank staff are administering temperature checks on everyone. Many wear surgical masks, gloves and everyone is using hand sanitizer.

Kristin Cuellar, nutrition education coordinator, takes Botting's temperature.

“I have hand sanitizer, baby wipes and gloves on the seat. I've got everything here,” said Melody Botting smiling under her mask. 

Botting is one of 35 volunteers for the food bank’s Senior Wellness Intervention Model (SWIM), a program that delivers to insecure and often isolated seniors. 

An estimated 13 million elderly Americans struggle to consistently have enough food to eat, according to Feeding America.   

Staff loaded Botting’s black SUV with food for five of the 100 households that will be served by the program this week. 

“Is it ok if I spray the boxes, is that cool?” she asked, then started spraying disinfectant without waiting for a response.

To the reporter riding along she offers some of her masks and gloves. 

“If I’ve overwhelmed you with disinfectant, I apologize,” she said.

COVID-19 is exponentially more dangerous for the people Botting is visiting, and she said if there was even a slight chance she exposed someone to this, “I couldn’t live with myself — if it’s for my good or their good I’m wearing it.”

Her phone belts out directions into the nearby neighborhood.

Botting’s route is a corner of the Edgewood Independent School District. She passed small, single family homes, packed tightly together, many in need of upkeep. The area’s median income is just over $28,000 a year, according to the Census.

She pulled up to a well manicured home. A yard filled with red flowers was hemmed in by a tall wrought iron gate. The gate was locked, so Botting had to call the owner, Oralia Salazar to let her in.

Botting brought the boxes and bags of vegetables and less perishable items Salazar’s door. They connected for a few brief moments. Salazar said she worried about a friend who was also in the program, and asked Botting to find out if she has been getting food. They talked about church and said their goodbyes, but not before Salazar offered one of her flowers.  

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Botting speaks with Salazar.

In addition to delivering food, the program is intended to connect seniors with nutrition navigators. These are food bank staff who help seniors eat healthy through meal plans and instruction. All-in-all someone stops by every other week. 

But the pandemic has made those navigator consultations, and Bottings extended visits impossible. Now they have to limit interactions. 

“I would have stayed at least a half hour/ 45 minutes, whatever I felt she needed,” said Botting.

Despite the health issues associated with loneliness, volunteers like Botting are more concerned with the damage volunteers can do.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio

“Most of the people that we deliver to are homebound or don't get out very often. So, the chances of them having it are pretty slim,” and she reiterated she didn’t want to be the one that gave them something.

They have to content themselves, for now, by ensuring seniors like Ms. Salazar have enough food.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive