He's supposed to just deliver the meals to shut-ins, but for George Hernandez the job goes beyond that.
"A lady on my route asked me to take out the trash," Hernandez said between stops on the route he drives for the Feedback Foundation. "I can't say 'no' because of how I feel inside," he says, pointing to his heart. "Maybe the lady feels sad."
Cedric Hoskin, 94, is on the receiving end of the deliveries, getting his meals on wheels from Willard (Bill) Lechner and his wife, Betty. The emphasis is on nutritious food for those unable to leave the house, but Hoskin doesn't especially care what's on the menu.
"I just eat it," he says. His main concern is the contact with those delivering the meals, a chance to talk with them, to show off his photographs of his days in the artillery in World War I.
"Bill, here's my first Model T Ford," Hoskins says to Bill Lechner.
Joan Jones does more than just deliver meals in the Laguna Hills community of Leisure World, too. At the home of an elderly woman, she volunteers to take down the bedroom curtains, wash and iron them, and rehang them next week.
"I know how I'd feel," says Jones, "lying there all day, trying to recover from a stroke, seeing those curtains and not being able to wash them myself." She departs with the curtains under her arm.
"The person who brings the food is a touch with the outside world," said Loredana Biro, director of Senior Meals and Services.
Some 50 organizations in the county, most of them nonprofit groups, provide meals for a total of about 2,500 people a day. Some groups offer a hot lunch and cold supper; others provide only one meal. Some deliver five days a week and toss in a frozen meal or two with the Friday delivery. Others deliver on weekends.
The number of meals provided daily ranges from 20--by the San Clemente Hospital Auxiliary--to 800 by Feedback Foundation in Anaheim.
Between them, Feedback, Senior Meals and Services in Garden Grove, and South County Senior Services in San Clemente provide about 1,600 meals daily. The three groups work under contract to the Area Agency on Aging, which runs the program through federal funds channeled through the county.
Peggy Weatherspoon, director of the Area Agency on Aging, estimates that there are more than 314,000 people over age 60 in the county. "If we assume even 10% are housebound or recovering from acute illness, we need to be doing 30,000 meals a day," Weatherspoon said.
"Seniors are coming out of hospitals sooner and sicker; some just need short-term, two to three weeks' assistance," she said. But others need help for longer periods.
Helen Wist, for instance, fell and broke her back 18 months ago. Now the 83-year-old Wist waits for her meals in a hospital bed in the tiny living room of her Anaheim home. The sound of the "Hello, amigos, " at the front door at 11:30 a.m. means Hernandez has arrived.
"Home," Wist says. "I wouldn't leave it for the world." The arrival of the meals and help from a part-time nurse's aide enable her to remain in her own home, rather than spend her days and nights in a nursing home.
"When I was a girl in Hamburg, I used to sit outside in the afternoon in the cafes and watch the boats go by on their way to the sea," Wist remembers. "In 1930, I took the steamer Deutschland bound for New York."
The meal she receives from Hernandez prompts her to remember another meal, in a time long gone in a city far away.
"When I was 16, my father took me to Vienna, and we had real Wiener schnitzel--not what they give you today in a restaurant, not hot dogs," she recalls.
Hernandez waves a cheery "Adios, amigos, " and is off for another delivery. Hernandez, who was born in Mexico City and is one of 13 children, calls this 8 a.m.-to-2:30 p.m. work his easy job, a contrast with his night work doing heavy lifting for an electronics firm.
The Feedback Foundation and the other two groups funded by the Area Agency on Aging work under federal guidelines to assess the needs of seniors, monitor the services and refer them to appropriate agencies.
The meals are intended primarily for those over 60 who have low incomes. The food is delivered for free with a voluntary donation suggested, but there is no examination of how much money a recipient may possess.
Diana Turner, assistant director of the Feedback Foundation, says, "Let's say that a couple who 'has money' applies for home-delivered meals and meets the criteria in that they are age-eligible and a handicap or frailty prevents them from doing their own cooking or shopping. We would not deny them a meal on a donation basis."
Feedback's executive director, Shirley Cohen, says the donations to her group average out at 62 cents per recipient, while the actual daily cost is $4.
"One lady sends two postage stamps faithfully every month, or sometimes a dollar, or a note, saying, 'I'm sorry, I can't.' "