FeedMore WNY is holding its annual Champions for Meals this week, where government officials and community leaders help deliver meals to homebound older adults to raise awareness for FeedMore’s Meals on Wheels program. It also marks 12 months since the COVID-19 pandemic began. WBFO’s Older Adults Reporter Tom Dinki provides a look at how Meals on Wheels has more than doubled its client base in that time.
The FeedMore Western New York commissary kitchen in Buffalo bustles with activity most mornings. Workers, donning masks, gloves and hair nets, prepare warm meals in ovens and kettles.
“So we have the boneless chicken wrap, a nice sauce, and then of course we have the mashed sweet potatoes and then we have peas,” said Kathy Graim, FeedMore’s chief client services officer, describing the food being taken off a hot food line and placed into black containers for a recent late-morning delivery.
Those meal containers will go into portable ovens, which will keep them warm until they reach the homes of thousands of older adults throughout Erie and Niagara counties.
“And we can do anything in here: We can do soup. We can do chili, a nice to hearty stew,” said Graim of the FeedMore kitchen’s capability. “So if you wanted to, let's say, cook a full turkey, we can do it. If you want to bake a rack of cookies, you can do it.”
FeedMore is doing more cooking than usual these days, to the tune of 4,5000 meals a day, thanks to the expansion of its Meals on Wheels program. It’s added 3,600 clients to its delivery routes since the pandemic began in March 2020, more than doubling what it was servicing before the pandemic.
“When you look at the numbers, it's just unbelievable,” said Tori Allen, FeedMore’s chief communications officer. “Overall in 2020, we delivered more than 1.3 million meals to more than 5,500 homebound neighbors.”
The expansion was made possible with the help of over $600,000 in COVID relief from the federal CARES Act. FeedMore, the result of a 2019 merger between the Food Bank of Western New York and Meals on Wheels for Western New York, altogether has a budget of about $36 million.
While that money helps pay for food and coordination, it’s ultimately volunteers that actually get the food to older adults.
FeedMore typically had about 1,700 Meals on Wheels volunteers before the pandemic. Allen said FeedMore had a “gigantic surge” of additional volunteers in 2020, but the nonprofit is always in desperate need for more.
“We are starting to see a dwindle in the number of volunteers,” she said. “More people are going back into work and more people are taking care of their kids at home.”
The Meals on Wheels expansion is needed because the pandemic made even more older adults in need of a contactless delivery of ready-to-eat meals.
Older adults are at increased risk to suffer severe symptoms and die from COVID-19. Many are wary of eating out at a senior center or restaurant, shopping at the grocery store, or even just having a caretaker come into their home to cook for them.
And at times, the pandemic simply made it harder for them to get food, especially if they’re low-income.
“I mean, if you think about even the beginning of the pandemic, the food shortages that we had, how people were buying in bulk,” Allen said. “Somebody that is low income, is food insecure, is a senior, is on a budget, they aren't able to go and buy in bulk like everybody else did. Or maybe like when they finally were able to get a ride to the grocery store, food was gone.
“If you think about anything when it comes to poverty and low-income means,” she added, “food is always the No. 1 priority for everybody because you need it to survive.”
And older adult hunger was a problem even before the pandemic. More than 5 million older Americans, or about 7%, were food insecure in 2018, according to the most recent report by Feeding America, a national food bank network.
James Golonka has been receiving Meals on Wheels for 15 years. He recently welcomed Meals on Wheels to his apartment on Buffalo’s West Side, donning a red suit and playing some vinyl records.
He called Meals on Wheels a “godsend.”
“It helps tremendously because I can’t cook like I normally cook anymore,” he said.
Golonka, 63, started getting Meals on Wheels after a heart attack. He’s had several forms of cancer now, and his medications often make him exhausted. He lives alone now, too, after his long-time roommate died of COVID-19 in a nursing home last year.
And the pandemic has only made picking up food from the store more difficult, as Golonka tries to keep socially distant given his compromised immune system.
“I always wear a mask, I’m always distant,” he said. “Even with animals, I just keep my distance. And even with the children out, if the children are playing in the neighborhood, I go [the other] way.”
But Golonka doesn’t mind the company from Meals on Wheels. He said he looks forward to the visits from volunteers five days a week.
‘They’re so respectful. They ask, ‘How are you doing? How's your day?’” he said. “They give me cards on my birthday.”
Golonka keeps a birthday card from Meals on Wheels on his coffee table. It reads, “Even on sad days, you're awesome.”
“Like a reminder of love and support,” Golonka said.
One in four older adults live alone, and one in four report feeling lonely, according to Meals on Wheels America, the national Meals on Wheels organization.
Allen said this social interaction from volunteers, which may be a client’s only social interaction, has only become more important during the pandemic.
“Mental health was such an issue for everybody in 2020, even younger and healthy people. Can you imagine taking that kind of mental strain, and putting it on our seniors who are homebound?” she said. “The key words we're always using is compassion and companionship, that really is more important to them sometimes in the actual meal.”
FeedMore is now trying to provide clients with more than a meal and company. It’s also trying to help them get vaccinated. FeedMore is partnering with Erie County to vaccinate Meals on Wheels clients right at their homes.
Anyone older than 50 is now eligible for the vaccine in New York state. Volunteers at food banks are also eligible, so any Meals on Wheels volunteers would also be able to get a vaccine.
In the FeedMore kitchen, the food lines have started earlier and are going later. The third party food vendor has had to hire more staff, too.
Graim said it’s been worth it.
“It was unprecedented times,” she said, “and we felt that it was important to be able to offer that service.”