COVID-19

Inside Meals On Wheels’ Struggle To Keep Older Americans Fed During A Pandemic

Lina Gomez, a meal assembler for Meals on Wheels, wears a face mask and gloves as she packs bags at a Meals on Wheels facility in San Francisco. The staff recently started wearing face marks due to the threat of spreading the coronavirus. (Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

In the best of times, Meals on Wheels faces the herculean task of delivering 200 million meals annually to 2.4 million hungry and isolated older Americans.

But this is the time of the dreaded novel coronavirus.

With the pandemic bearing down, I wanted to get inside Meals on Wheels to see how it would gear up its services. After all, 79% of its existing clients are 75 or older. There would be more demand now that many more seniors — including those who probably never imagined they’d be stuck inside — are advised it is safest to remain housebound.

What I saw was that this agency, a mainstay in the lives of so many, was swamped. Its ideas of what was possible diminished by the hour, and it has had to improvise, sometimes successfully, to complete its mission.

When I reached out to its press office on March 12, I was optimistic I’d be able to see its local operation, meet its director and volunteers, and maybe even talk to a client or two. While the West Coast was already hunkering down, life was still fairly normal on the East Coast and near its national headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. It would be ideal, of course, to go on a delivery. That was probably too much to ask.

By the next afternoon, a publicist from the headquarters told me, “In an effort to minimize risk, they’re no longer allowing visitors or inviting them into facilities.”

But this, she said, could “illustrate how cautious they’re being and how quickly the situation is escalating.”

That’s OK, I thought.

Not an hour later, another email from a local program director in nearby Alexandria, Virginia: “Things are very dynamic. As a precaution, we are no longer having visitors go along on deliveries.”

He invited me to a meal pickup spot to talk with volunteers, so long as there was “no shaking hands, of course.”

Maybe we could even get a look at meal prep. On the next Monday, four days later, we’d go with a photographer to Jeffery’s Catering, a full-service catering company tucked away in one of Alexandria’s industrial sections.

The novel coronavirus marched on.

About five minutes after I pulled up that Monday, I got a text saying all in-person meetings were canceled. Instead of seeing the director, I drove home to interview him by phone. And I could talk to a volunteer by phone, too. But not a client.

What I couldn’t see, but what I learned, was that Meals on Wheels was desperately — though creatively — struggling to honor its mission. This is also an organization that depends on older volunteers, roughly two-thirds of whom are 65 and up. What if they prefer to stay home for their safety? Or worse, what if they had been struck by this nasty virus, which is particularly deadly for older folks?

The need was overwhelming. Most volunteers were taking shelter. All social norms were upended, with people social distancing and working from home.

By the next Thursday, Vinsen Faris, CEO of Meals on Wheels in San Antonio, was worried. The chapter serves 3,600 meals daily and had lost dozens of corporate volunteers as companies shut down.

With fewer volunteers, staff members would make home deliveries. Faris suspected they’d need to move on to shelf-stable food, like canned fruit and beans and boxed pasta.

He was haunted by the idea that they might not be able to deliver at all.

“I’m up at night wondering: How do we continue to be their lifeline?” Faris said.

Bracing for the worst, the San Antonio group has been providing five extra meals for clients to keep in their refrigerators. It will also distribute emergency meal boxes with four days’ worth of food that can be easily opened and requires little preparation.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, executive director Alan Winstead said that its group would soon scrap fresh, hot meals. They would do more with less: delivering frozen and shelf-stable food. He’d lost 75% of his volunteers.

“I have been with Meals on Wheels for seven years, and this experience — and the need to adapt — is unprecedented,” said Ellie Hollander, CEO of Meals on Wheels America.

But adapt it must. “We will need to provide even more meals than we previously had to,” she said, because requests nationally for new aid are mounting.

Meals on Wheels is informing folks calling for help right now that it can’t take on new applicants until after April 15.

Meal delivery is more complicated, too. Volunteers must wash hands or use sanitizer between stops. They will have their temperature taken, too.

They will place the bag of food on the doorknob, knock on the door and then step back at least 6 feet. Some clients who can’t walk — or who are blind — can’t navigate the trip to the front door. Others aren’t able to bend down to pick up the food. They must wait for the client to come to the door and retrieve the food before leaving.

Rule No. 1: no contact.

The food is critical. But Meals on Wheels offers something just as precious: human connection. Its volunteers offer a conversation. They check in on folks. They might be the first to know that someone’s struggles are getting the best of them. Staff will now reach out by phone to check in.

As Winstead, in Raleigh, puts it: “The social connection is equally important.”

The group’s need for financial assistance is dire. Its COVID-19 Response Fund has raised more than $5 million. Another silver lining: The government has committed $250 million in supplemental funding to feed the needy as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

With a boost from that, it will hire more drivers and reach out to ride-hailing companies to assist with delivery, said Hollander, the national CEO.

The real possibility of halting all home delivery has Winstead focused on getting as much food as possible to his clients in Raleigh.

“This is a food crisis. This is a community crisis. This crisis challenges every operating procedure we’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m scared.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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