In 1984, a Meals on Wheels volunteer near San Diego delivered some food to an elderly woman’s home. The woman graciously accepted the package, then turned to look at her cats.
"We all get to eat!" she announced to her feline friends.
The fact that this woman was sharing her food — and potentially sacrificing her health — to feed her cats made the volunteer wonder how many other elderly and disabled Meals on Wheels clients were depriving themselves of nourishment in order to sustain their beloved pets.
It was out of this concern that the Helen Woodward Animal Center, a nonprofit, no-kill animal shelter and educational center in San Diego, founded the AniMeals program. Donated cat and dog food is delivered by volunteers to senior centers, nursing homes, hospice facilities, and Meals on Wheels, where it is distributed to homebound, elderly, and disabled individuals by each individual organization. The program is completely free to the clients it serves, the majority of whom are unable to leave the house without assistance and often struggle with the costs and activities of daily living.
"I think we’re helping these people in a way that many people don’t think of," says Wendy Brown, AniMeals supervisor at the Helen Woodward Animal Center. "It’s a very unique program. Through our partners we can get the food out to the folks that need it."
AniMeals started out serving just a handful of people in 1984. It now has nearly 50 volunteers and provides pet food to more than 160 families in San Diego County, from Oceanside to Chula Vista.
According to the Helen Woodward Animal Center website, AniMeals helps people as much as pets — the physical and emotional health benefits of owning pets include lower blood pressure and cholesterol, an increased sense of security, increased activity and mobility, and reduced incidents of depression. Research has also shown that elderly people with pets tend to live longer.
Cats have made a huge difference in the life of one AniMeals client, a 95-year-old man who cares for his neighbor’s kitties during the day, while she keeps them at night so he does not trip over them in the dark. According to Brown, caring for the cats brings a lot of joy to his life — and if it weren’t for AniMeals, neither he nor the neighbor could afford to feed the cats.
"He’s outlived two wives, and he’s had brain surgery," Brown says. "When his last wife passed away, he’d been in a position where he was taking care of her, and that kind of encompassed his entire day. Now instead of caring for his wife, he’s caring for these cats. He feeds them and plays with them, and they’re his companions. They’ve really given him a reason for living."
By visiting with this elderly man and other AniMeals clients, Brown has seen firsthand that the many studies touting the benefits of pet ownership are accurate.
"You read the studies that say pet ownership is good for your blood pressure and gets you mobile, but I actually got to go out and see it," she says. "Because we’re there, it’s allowing him to keep the cats and allowing his neighbor to help him, and it’s made a huge difference in his life."
In this way, AniMeals keeps families together. Brown has seen many elderly individuals who have no living relatives — and don’t know their neighbors — rely solely on their pets for companionship.
"We get stories where people are on their own, and that dog is the only thing they have," she says. "We’re allowing those two to stay together. It’s huge."
The AniMeals program is always accepting donations; according to Brown, they will take any brand of pet food that is unopened, unexpired, and nonprescription. They’ve begun holding food drives at area schools, and many local Petco stores have donation bins for the Helen Woodward Animal Center or AniMeals. There is always a donation bin in the lobby of the shelter, and Brown will even drive to pick up donated food.
"Food is huge for us," she says. "That’s how we work."
Through the first week of January, the Helen Woodward Animal Center is also holding its annual Iams Home 4 the Holidays adoption drive. Home 4 the Holidays has helped millions of animals find homes since its inception in 1999, when the Helen Woodward Animal Center organized 14 San Diego-area shelters and found homes for more than 2,500 pets, sending each home with a holiday meal of Iams food.
Today, the event has grown to include more than 3,500 shelters worldwide, encouraging people to give animals a warm home for the winter. This year, more than 970,000 animals have already been adopted. For more information on Home 4 the Holidays and a list of participating shelters, visit the Helen Woodward Animal Center website.