BRADENTON -- Larry Guizar checked his delivery list once more before closing the hatch on his SUV Monday morning.
He had 21 stops in Palmetto and Ellenton that would take almost two hours.
A volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee for nine years, he drives five days a week, but that will change.
“I’m cutting back to three because of gas,” the retiree said.
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Another nine-year volunteer driver with 20 stops in East Manatee, Maureen Lussier was of like mind.
“I usually do three days a week, but I’ll drop a day if gas prices don’t go down more,” she said.
Other drivers expressed similar reservations, reflecting concerns raised by the Meals On Wheels Association of America in Alexandria, Va.
Many of its programs are struggling nationally because of the increase in gas prices.
Nearly 80 percent have lost volunteers and subsequently 25 percent had to reduce the number of seniors served per week.
“It’s been a triple whammy -- gas prices are up, food prices are up and the economy is bad,” said Enid Borden, Meals On Wheel’s president and chief executive officer.
Meals On Wheels Plus of Manatee has felt it, too.
Food costs have risen 20-25 percent over the last two years because of transportation expenses, according to Kristen Theisen, the director of development.
“When their costs go up, we see it as well,” she said. “Many of our clients can’t afford to pay, so we have to absorb that or cover it through fundraising.”
Yet the agency has been able to hang onto its team of volunteers, 45 of whom drive 51 routes and serve approximately 500 people around Manatee County. During season, there are more than 250 drivers.
“A lot of our volunteer drivers are doing as they’ve always done, but we have had a couple not able to do as much,” Theisen said.
“This time of year is difficult anyway, because seasonal volunteers are gone. We try to break up the routes, be as efficient as possible because of gas prices and logistics.”
One cost-saving measure is, rather than have drivers return their food containers to Meals On Wheels Plus immediately after that day’s rounds, they return it for the next day’s pickup.
“So it’s not two trips,” Theisen said.
Another is an agency van transporting food to a drop point at a distant location for distribution to waiting volunteer drivers.
“That way drivers don’t have to come all the way here,” she said.
Most drivers don’t bother taking the mileage reimbursement offered by the agency.
Regardless, there is a need for more volunteer drivers.
“When we’re calling people to do more than one day a week, we’re being told no,” said Carol Schechterle, the volunteer manager. “That could be an impact of gas prices.”
Marlena Johnsky, a 20-year volunteer driver with 14 stops in East Bradenton, knows the impact first hand.
“It’s horrible,” she said. “Fortunately, I have a short route, but gas prices are a real problem. I just keep going, because it’s the most important thing we do.”
Richie Torres, a new volunteer, agreed.
“Rising gas prices are inevitable,” he said. “That’s a game they’re going to play. You just gotta do what you gotta do.”
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.
If you’d like to be a volunteer driver for Meals On Wheels Plus, call Carol Schechterle at 747-4655.