Like most, Jacqueline Johnson had heard the rhyme of Mother Hubbard since nursery days, knew all about the luckless old woman’s empty cupboard and how the poor dog went without. Never did she dream she would face such hardship herself.
Just eight months ago, Johnson, widowed, reliant on Social Security and hobbled by disease, was nearing wit’s end in keeping Tinker Bell, a Rottweiler, and Sincere, a pit bull mix, fed.
“At the end of the month, I kept running out of food," she said. “They got rice and cereal."
Johnson, 69, a retired Alief school secretary, was far luckier than old lady Hubbard.
Already a client of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston’s Meals on Wheels, which delivers hot meals to 4,500 older area residents, Johnson discovered that her dogs qualified for the agency’s aniMeals on Wheels program.
Now, every month, agency volunteers knock on Johnson’s southwest Houston door bearing plastic bags filled with 10 pounds of food for each pet.
“I didn’t want to give my dogs away. They were like my children, my babies" Johnson said, recalling a time when her combined bank accounts contained less than $30. “It was unfair to the dogs. I was kind of stuck."
Denise Atkerson, Interfaith Ministries volunteer director, said the pet assistance program, now in its fifth year, makes monthly deliveries of 7,000 pounds of food to 1,100 cats and dogs in 450 households.
The Houston program was an outgrowth of a national effort initiated by Meals on Wheels of America, Atkerson said. “They discovered that seniors were sharing their food with their pets," she said. “The seniors are ‘food fragile.’ We want them to eat all their meals ... but we know how vitally important their pets are to their companionship, comfort and safety. Some say their pets are the reasons the get up in the morning."
Atkerson said pet food assistance is limited to individuals already enrolled in the Meals on Wheels program. The adult program is directed at people older than 60 who suffer physical conditions that make preparing meals difficult.
Relying on about 200 volunteers, aniMeals obtains wet and dry pet food through food drives held in conjunction with such groups as the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and through private donations.
One afternoon, donor Cheryl Riedl arrived at the agency’s headquarters with a trunkload of dog food. “I’m known as a good shopper. I’m always alert for bargains, and this is something I can do to help," said Riedl, a former agency volunteer who owns a cocker spaniel. “I love pets, and I understand the value pets have in life."
Johnson, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, relies on her pets for companionship.
“I feel like I’m running a kindergarten," she said. “I’m usually home by myself. Dogs are the best companions in the world. No matter what you do, they don’t seem to care. They’re always happy."