A Full Belly for the Whole Family
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A Full Belly for the Whole Family

When Meals on Wheels workers noticed that plates from seniors were being licked clean, they pledged to create a program for pets, too.

The Meaning of Family

Cindi Beard sits in the living room of her trailer home in Sacramento, California, watching her favorite channel, Animal Planet. But her mind isn't on the show. It's nearly 9:50 a.m., and she's eagerly waiting for the doorbell to ring. As soon as it does, Beard, 69, heads to the door with the help of her cane as Sydney, her Australian shepherd mix, barks happily by her side. "Hi, Cindi!" says Teofilo Tamboaon, a driver with the organization Meals on Wheels (MOW), who gives her one of his usual hello hugs, then hands her a lunch tray (today it's tuna salad on a bed of lettuce, vegetables, and a cookie), as he does every weekday morning.

But he has also brought a crackling new bag of dog kibble, compliments of MOW's new program, Pets Eat Too (PET). Tamboaon spends a few minutes roughhousing with Sydney, then replaces the frayed rope around her neck with a proper leash and collar, gifts that delight Beard. She settles on the couch with her tray on her lap while Sydney runs back and forth from her bowl on the kitchen floor to chew a mouthful while sitting at Beard's feet. It seems the two agree that a meal just tastes better when they eat side by side.

Hardships Strike

It was only months earlier that these close companions were both going hungry. Half of the 1,500 homebound seniors served by MOW's Sacramento branch have pets, and many of them were sharing their lunches -- often their only substantial daily meal -- with their beloved dogs and cats. The group got wind of the problem after drivers came to collect the trays and often found them left outside on porches, next to water bowls, obviously licked clean. MOW initially collected broken or outdated bags of food from the local animal shelter, but the 1,200 pounds they distributed every month didn't even begin to fill the bellies of so many hungry pets. Then last May MOW program manager Janine Brown received a call from Royal Canin, a pet-food company that wanted to help by donating 65,000 pounds of food -- enough to meet MOW's needs for a year not only in Sacramento but in several neighboring counties as well.

Life had changed quickly for Beard. Two years earlier she never dreamed she would ever be worried about putting food on the table. Separated since 1999 from her husband, she was working as a part-time receptionist and earned a decent income, which went toward the rent on her trailer, her car payments, and other living expenses. But in November 2004 she suffered a mild stroke while driving and rear-ended a truck. An air bag spared her any broken bones, but the impact worsened her back pain. Beard had to quit her job, and she received little financial support from her friends, family, or husband, leaving her to subsist on $750 monthly Social Security payments.

She couldn't keep up with the bills. Her rent and car payments alone came to some $525. Beard had already stopped taking her various medications for diabetes and heart problems. She lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches three meals a day, seven days a week. Allowing herself to go hungry was one thing, but how could she not provide for Sydney, the faithful companion who had seen her through her crumbling marriage? So she spent more than half of her $45 monthly grocery money on dog food; even so, it wasn't enough to keep Sydney well fed. But at least Beard had a sense of security. "Without her, I can't sleep," she says. "She's my beacon in the night, my lifeguard."

But Beard hadn't realized how unsteady on her feet she had become without her medication. While walking outside her trailer a month after her stroke, she fell after having barely taken 10 steps. Unable to get up on her own, she lay waiting on the street for 15 minutes for someone to see her. Then she saw it -- a garbage truck, barreling straight toward her. Frantic, she managed to wave her arms and alert the driver, who stopped, got out and called to a woman across the street to help him move Beard. The woman, who happened to be a MOW driver, asked Beard about her falls and her difficulty standing and walking, and suggested to her supervisor that Beard be part of the MOW program; she received her first meal a few days later.

"Manna from Heaven"

Knowing Sydney was hungry, Beard felt so guilty she could only pick at her food. She leaned down and placed the tray at her feet and smiled as the dog lapped it up. The shared meal became their daily ritual, and Beard ate only one other small meal at night, usually cottage cheese and fruit. Feeling ashamed, she never left a licked tray for the MOW driver to find. But Tamboaon somehow sensed the pair's need and suggested to his supervisor that Beard be included in the new PET program. One day, without saying a word, he simply handed her kibble. The gratitude in Beard's eyes said it all.

Nationally an estimated 20 percent of MOW's 4,500 branches now run similar pet-food programs. "Someday we'd like all of our programs to be able to do this," says Enid Borden, the organization's chief executive officer. "It's our job to provide nourishment to the household, and pets are often part of that." At Beard's home, both she and Sydney are eating better. With unlimited free food, Sydney has put on 10 pounds, and Beard is now able to spend all of her monthly food allowance on herself. She considers the help from MOW and PET as nothing less than a blessing. "It's like manna from heaven," Beard says. "It has made all the difference."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, January 2006.