Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories featuring the 25 agencies that will be receiving money from the Finney County United Way in 2014.



Like a lot of Kansans, Jean Entz of Garden City believes her family would "figure something out" if the local Meals on Wheels program was not available, but she hopes that day never comes.

"It's very important. I have a brother who is mentally handicapped, and it just helps out a lot," she said.

Entz said the meal program was recommended for her brother, Robert, by his doctor. Robert also has diabetes and needed a diet that provided additional nutrients for his medical condition.

"I just don't know what we would do without it, really," she said.

Meals on Wheels is one of 25 organizations set to receive funding from the Finney County United Way in 2014. Local fundraising efforts to raise money for the 2014 campaign recently began, with a goal of raising $560,000.

Meals through Meals on Wheels are designed to meet specific nutritional needs and may be received for as long as necessary. Some people need meals for a short time to help in the recovery from illness or surgery. The program enhances the nutritional health of the home-bound, handicapped or persons convalescing in Finney County by offering free or reduced cost meals to persons with limited means.

The daily meal delivery also provides social contact for clients, as well as an opportunity to check on a client's safety.

Volunteers deliver meals Monday through Friday to people who are homebound or handicapped, and sometimes a sack lunch on Saturday delivered with the Friday meal.

The program is celebrating its 41st year. In 1972, meals were prepared by the Luau Inn, which is no longer in business. Since 1978, meals have been prepared by St. Catherine Hospital. A registered dietician prepares a nutritious menu.

Meals cost $2.65 each. Currently, 91 people are served, 30 of which receive free meals because they are considered low income. A total of 375 volunteers give time and use of their vehicles throughout the year on seven city routes and one county route.

Director Patti Thummel said it's normal for numbers to be a little bit down during this time of year.

"When it starts getting cooler, people start doing things like getting mom and dad taken care of for the winter. During the summer, our numbers always go down a little," she said. "We picked up three last week, so I think we're starting to see them start to rise."

Meals on Wheels is funded by Finney County, Finnup Foundation, Garden City Company Partnership, the United Way, Mary Jo Williams Charitable Trust and private donations.

The overall Meals on Wheels budget is $136,550, with $15,000 coming from the United Way, or nearly 11 percent of the program's total budget.

Meals on Wheels clients range in age from people in their 20s to people in their 90s who have medical conditions that keeps them homebound most of the time.

"Without their funding, we wouldn't be able to feed all those people free meals. We also get Sunday meals to some of our low income clients," Thummel said. "When I was doing home visits, I was appalled at the number of people who did not have food in their homes. So we started trying to give them an extra meal on Friday to carry them through the weekend."

In the last couple of years, United Way funding has allowed Meals on Wheels to offer more, including free holiday meals for all clients, Sunday meals for low-income clients and "blizzard packs", which is a package of non-perishable food clients receive at the start of winter months that can be used when inclement weather causes meal delivery to be suspended.

"This year, we were able to add an additional holiday. Everyone got a free meal on July 4, and they'll get Thanksgiving and Christmas," Thummel said. "We also have been able to buy ice chests this year for some of our low-income people who didn't have anywhere to put their food."

If United Way funding were eliminated, Thummel said, those three programs could get modified, reduced or eliminated. That probably would hurt low-income clients the most.

In 2012, Meals on Wheels served 25,206 meals, nearly 2,000 more than in 2011, to the homebound. Of those, 6,706 were free meals served to people with low incomes, which is primarily where United Way funds come into play. In 2011, 5,551 free meals were served.

No one is turned away even if they can't afford the cost.

Many clients don't have family and typically have high health costs and medical bills they struggle to pay. Thummel said she knows of some clients who cut back on medications some months so they can pay other bills.

"It's growing because the elderly are paying more for prescriptions. The cost of living is up, health care is up. So it's a catch-all for them. I have some who are choosing between buying prescriptions and meals. It's sad," she said. "Those people who get meals, truly, truly need them."

The 25 partner agencies for the 2014 United Way campaign include:

Miles of Smiles; Real Men, Real Leaders; Russell Child Development Center; Santa Fe Trail Council Boy Scouts of America; Seeds of Hope Jail Ministry; Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association; Building Blocks Project through Russell Child Development Center; Spirit of the Plains CASA, Inc.; St. Catherine Hospital Lactation Program; United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries; The Salvation Army; United Cerebral Palsy of Kansas; Garden City Recreation Commission Playground Program; Big Brothers Big Sisters of Finney and Kearny Counties; Catholic Social Service; Circles of Hope; Community Day Care Center, Inc.; Family Crisis Services, Inc.; Finney County Retired Senior Volunteer Program; Garden City Area Chapter of the American Red Cross; Garden City Family YMCA; Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland; Habitat for Humanity; Kansas Children's Service League; Meals on Wheels.