A GRANT from Wiltshire Community Foundation’s coronavirus fund has helped Age UK expand an increasingly popular hot meals service to keep pace with demand.

The Swindon Coronavirus Response Fund, which has so far raised more than £900,000 and distributed £570,000 to more than 150 groups, has awarded Age UK £7,681 to buy more equipment for the expanding service.

The service began in February with a £2,750 community foundation grant at its base in Toothill, Swindon, where chilled meals are heated up in commercial ovens and taken by road to a growing list of customers.

The service, which already operates in Swindon, Marlborough Pewsey, Chippenham, Calne, Malmesbury and Salisbury, is now expanding into Devizes, Trowbridge, Melksham, Bradford on Avon, Warminster and Westbury.

Five vans ferry the meals, which cost £6.50 a day for two courses, in thermal boxes which keep them warm for four hours.

Director of Services Simon Billingham said: “We’ve gone from seven or eight customers at the beginning of February when we launched to 170 customers now and more enquiries every day. Even as the restrictions are being lifted, I think people are enjoying the service and they value the social contact with the delivery drivers.”

He said the daily contact with the drivers is already paying dividends for elderly customers who may not see their families every day.

“Our drivers have got to know the people they deliver to and we have had instances when the person hasn’t appeared to be very well or hasn’t answered the door so we have been able to discuss that with their loved ones or friends and raise the alarm,” said Mr Billingham.

“We are also able to connect those families to our free advice service, which helps 4,500 people a year.”

The latest grant will pay for a new oven and two more freezers, which will help cope with the extra demand. Mr Billingham said: “We have one commercial oven and four freezers and the more rounds we take on, the earlier we have to start cooking, which then means they start cooling down. The grant has helped us order another oven and two more freezers.”

He said the charity plans to eventually have another base in the south of the county with its own ovens once demand there makes it commercially viable.

“I don’t think we are anywhere near the ceiling for this service yet and the exciting bit is that as long as we can grow it in a financially well-managed way, we will be able to offer it for the foreseeable future and continue to expand it. The more people who see our vehicles driving round, the more enquiries we get,” said Mr Billingham.

“The grant is a massive help, otherwise those sorts of capital cost would have to come out of our reserves that could be used to keep the service sustainable. It’s all good news and it is definitely going in the right direction.”

Wiltshire Community Foundation interim co-chief executive Fiona Oliver said: “We are so pleased to be able to support this fantastic service as it grows and becomes a part of people’s daily lives. Age UK are meeting a real need, not just with the food they deliver but with the friendly face on the doorstep each day, which might be the only human contact some of these elderly and isolated people have.

“It’s a really good example of an initiative that sets out to meet one need and then also meets another.”

Find out more about Age UK’s meals service at: ageuk.org.uk/wiltshire/our-services/meal-delivery-service.

To donate to Wiltshire Community Foundation’s Wiltshire and Swindon Coronavirus Response Fund or find out how to apply, go to wiltshirecf.org.uk.