When Victoria Herrera launched Meals on Wheels in Ventura 25 years ago, she started small, delivering hot food daily to 10 homebound, elderly residents.
"I shopped. I cooked. I delivered," said Herrera, executive director of the nonprofit Ventura County Commission on Nutrition. "Then there was a write-up in the paper, and ... all of a sudden, I was doing 50 meals a day."
That number has kept growing over the years, and now Herrera and her crew deliver 150 meals daily for residents of Ventura, Oxnard and Santa Paula.
But her expenses have grown even faster. Herrera employs three drivers, two cooks and an office assistant, all of whom work for minimum wage or a little more.
The problem is overhead. Herrera's workers' compensation insurance costs $4,518 every three months, up from $2,304 last year. Liability and unemployment insurance costs total $2,300 every six months.
Burdened with thousands of dollars in debt, the financial squeeze has forced her to face a harsh reality. Herrera for the first time has had to start a waiting list, and it could get worse.
"If I don't come up with the money by at least the 15th," she said, "I'll have to close the doors at the end of March."
Money is not her only problem. Debilitated by the death of two sons in recent years and hit with sudden attacks of diabetes and high blood pressure, Herrera has been in the hospital three times in the last nine months. When she misses work, no one is out there raising funds for the meals program.
But Herrera isn't making excuses. Those facts come up almost incidentally as the Colorado native moves around the Meals on Wheels headquarters off the Avenue in Ventura. She watches as the cooks scoop baked chicken, steamed rice and zucchini into foil containers. In another room, the drivers pack the cold portion of the meal -- salad, juice, milk and bread -- into paper bags.
Alta Butcher is one of those on the receiving end of Herrera's charitable endeavors.
The 79-year-old east Ventura resident has been a Meals on Wheels client since January 2002 and says she has come to depend on the service, not only for the food, but the social interaction.
"It's a lifesaver for me," she said. "If it wasn't for them, I don't think I could live here, because I don't have family."
Driver Kim Gleason, a 47-year-old single mother, said she also enjoys socializing with seniors. "I'm a people person," she said. "I like helping them out."
She has worked for the food program for only six months but already has a few stories. She tells of the time she had to perform CPR at the home of one elderly couple, Betty and Tom McCallum.
But it wasn't the couple who needed help, Gleason said. It was their Pomeranian, Ginger, who had a piece of rawhide stuck in her throat.
"Now the dog just loves me," Gleason said, laughing.
The money for Meals on Wheels comes from a variety of sources, Herrera said. Clients are asked to pay what they can, with roughly 60% offering donations. The city of Ventura contributes $25,000 annually, and Oxnard pitches in $4,000. Companies and foundations, including Affinity Bank and Amgen Corp., also have donated in the past.
But with insurance, workers' compensation and payroll costs, it's not enough, Herrera said. Hers is not the only seniors program hurting.
Patty Kreider, manager of the Ventura County Senior Nutrition Program, said she also has had to institute a waiting list for the first time as a result of the county's hiring freeze. She has only seven paid drivers to deliver 400 meals a day to homes, plus 100 meals to group sites.
At the same time, demand keeps rising. "Our caseloads have been increasing, because our population is changing," she said. "The aged population is increasing. The longevity is increasing. You're going to end up with a lot more [elderly] people."
Rogina Clarke, director of the Conejo Valley Meals on Wheels, said she hasn't been hit as hard as her Ventura counterpart. All of her drivers are volunteers.
"We're maintaining," despite rising gasoline prices, she said. Herrera said she uses volunteers when she gets them, but usually not as drivers.
"I have a tremendous load of meals," she said. "Most of my volunteers can only take 10, some only five."
She also worries about volunteers, many of whom are elderly themselves, making it in every day, rain or shine.
"The meals are supposed to be there at a certain time," she said. "People are waiting for their meals. Ninety percent of them are eating only that one meal per day."
Herrera doesn't want to think about what will happen if she has to close down. "It would be devastating for everybody," she said.
While her clients could get on the county's waiting list, "some of these people can't wait," Herrera said. "We have terminal people, diabetics, amputees.
"We have people waiting to get their meals and waiting to see if they're going to make it until the next day."