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Food with thought: Meals on Wheels providers change tactics to help the most

Debbie Bonilla, a volunteer with Three Village Meals

Debbie Bonilla, a volunteer with Three Village Meals on Wheels, has been delivering meals to Port Jefferson residents for more than 20 years. Credit: Johnny Milano

In mid-March, when senior centers — much like everything else — were closing because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Meals on Wheels in Nassau County went into overdrive to provide meals to the older people who typically ate at those facilities.

“It was an extreme challenge, because everything we did, we did within five days,” said Carol O’Neill, senior director of Senior & Nutrition Services for EAC (Empower-Assist-Care) Network, which serves clients ages 66 to 103 and is the largest provider of Meals on Wheels in Nassau. “We had no choice. It was either don’t respond to the people needing the food or make some dramatic changes.”

Those changes included temporarily moving from one hot and one cold meal delivered five days a week to twice weekly deliveries of five frozen entrees and chilled lunches, and switching the source of the meals from hospitals to catering and food-service companies. They plan to continue the new model for the foreseeable future.

“It worked out that we were able to provide meals for more people,” noted O’Neill. “It worked out better for food safety. When you’re serving hot meals, it’s challenging to be able to deliver the meals within a time frame to keep the food safe.”

Founded in 1969, EAC is a nonprofit organization that provides programs for seniors, families, children and youth, and behavioral health, criminal justice and vocational services. From April to June 2019, EAC, which serves more than 50% of Meals on Wheels’ clients in Nassau County, delivered 31,270 meals to about 400 seniors. For the same quarter in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, they served 56,988 meals to about 1,000 seniors.

Starting in May 2020, they also began delivering to 25 COVID-19-positive senior citizens and by end of June, that number had risen to 75. Though they are still serving COVID-19 patients, the numbers are beginning to taper.

According to Meals on Wheels America, the national organization that supports local programs with funding, leadership, education and advocacy, nearly all of the local programs across the United States have experienced increased demands during the pandemic.

Embracing the challenge

In March and April, many of EAC’s volunteer drivers stopped working because of the virus outbreak. Within days, the organization, which is funded by the Nassau County Office for the Aging, private and corporate donations, as well as voluntary contributions from clients or their families, went from a crew of 50 volunteer and six paid drivers to just two paid drivers.

“It was difficult because our volunteers were predominantly older people and, of course, they could not volunteer,” O’Neill said, acknowledging the increased health risks of COVID-19 to senior citizens.

To make up for the dearth of drivers, EAC used funds from a $100,000 grant to recruit Red Cross workers, recent retirees and staff from EAC’s now closed senior centers to put together a group of 20 drivers, and to purchase masks and gloves. Since then, seven volunteer drivers have returned.

“They’re just incredible people,” O’Neill said about the new drivers. “They just did 100 percent. They did everything they could possibly do to help out with the meal delivery.”

EAC switched to no-contact delivery, meaning that instead of handing meals to seniors and engaging in conversation, they would arrive at the residence, call the senior on the phone, and wait at a distance as the client picked up the food from the doorstep.

The pandemic also meant many older Long Islanders were largely cut off from the community, so EAC endeavored to supplement that lack of social contact.

“So we turned to the phone. Everybody gets called at least once a week. More vulnerable people will get called twice week,” said O’Neill, adding that many community members have volunteered to make calls. “People are lonely. This is hard on everyone.”

During the peak pandemic months in New York, staff and volunteers brainstormed to ensure there were no gaps in service, said Tania Peterson Chandler, chief executive of EAC.

“We were doing phone calls and trying to help them set up whatever we can with videoconferencing, if they have the capacity,” Chandler said. “And just making sure we’re always checking in with them … It’s kind of a collaborative effort of using whatever technology we can to make sure that we’re still there for them.”

At times, they’ve resorted to lower-tech gestures, like placing signs on delivery vans to celebrate a client’s birthday, Chandler said, “to try to make sure they still feel connected, so they can at least look out the window and see that someone is still there for them.”

A side of compassion

A former Red Cross volunteer, Steve Forte rushed to answer EAC’s call for drivers in April.

“You have to do this because you enjoy doing it,” said Forte, 62, of North Bellmore, a paid driver. “The seniors are very wonderful people, very vulnerable. You pick that up as soon as you start working with them.”

During the pandemic, Forte recalled many clients would invite him into their homes, but he had to refuse. Still, a key part of meal delivery is providing a wellness check, making sure the client is in good health.

“You can’t just leave the meal without seeing somebody,” Forte explained.

One person Forte has enjoyed communing with — from a safe distance — is Bea C. of Carle Place, who eventually enlisted him to regularly take out her recycling.

“She told me she’s 97 years old. I thought that was amazing,” said Forte, who plans to continue his five-day-a-week deliveries for the foreseeable future. “As long as they need me to do it, I told them I’ve available to help out.”

Bea gets excited about the quality of the food, which she said has improved recently. “It’s excellent,” she said. “I’m 97, and I don’t have the energy to cook and do anything anymore, and this works out fine for me.”

A program dispatcher and meal deliverer for EAC for the past two years, Julie Kessler observed that many of the seniors look forward to their conversations.

“I really think they miss the visits,” said Kessler, 54, of Plainview. “Because it’s not just about bringing them the food. It’s about them talking and having company.”

Recently, when Kessler arrived at Roswitha K.’s Mineola home, she found her older friend working in the garden, where she presented Kessler with a basket of flowers she’d just picked.

“It was absolutely gorgeous,” exclaimed Kessler. “She made it special for me, and it made my day. She said I just make her days so special when I come visit. And, I miss that I can’t visit.”

Roswitha was repaying the kindness Kessler had extended to her on her 92nd birthday this past winter, delivering a bouquet of flowers along with the day’s meal.

“I think she had tears in her eyes when I showed up at her house with flowers. Sometimes you just want to make somebody’s day special because you’re there, and they appreciate seeing you,” said Kessler, adding, “I try to go the extra mile, if I know they need something extra. I’m always willing to help them with whatever they need.”

For her part, Roswitha said, she wanted to do something nice for her driver and friend.

“She is such a pleasure,” Roswitha said. “Now everybody’s cooped up, so everybody gets a little taste of it. But, old people, when they sit the whole day, have nobody to talk to — it’s so beautiful when you have intelligent persons you can talk to. And she’s a doll. She’s so helpful and she’s so considerate.”

Not just seniors

At Three Village Meals on Wheels, which is financed solely through fundraising and donations, there is no age requirement to participate in the program, which serves Stony Brook, Setauket, Port Jefferson, Miller Place, Mount Sinai and parts of Coram and Centereach.

Clients are asked to pay $7.50 a day for two meals, which are delivered five weekdays. “And if anyone feels they can’t afford it, they can apply for a subsidy,” said Ruth Spear, office manager of the Stony Brook-based organization.

When some of Three Village’s drivers, many in their 60s and 70s, felt unsafe being out at the height of the pandemic in New York, the group adjusted its delivery schedules, she said.

“Instead of sending the drivers in pairs, only one driver was sent on each route,” said Spear, adding that every day people called offering to volunteer, many of them younger, and they took on about four or five or them. “We felt for safety reasons, the pandemic was not the best time to take on [many] new volunteers.”

Like EAC, Three Village adapted its meal service, switching to cold meals for two months. When hot meals resumed, they switched to recyclable containers — instead of the trays that were returned for reuse.

“The drivers just knock on the door. They wave hello. The drivers have masks on. They have gloves. They leave the food on the table,” said Spear, referring to the tables clients leave outside the door for this purpose.

In the spring, Spear said the organization got calls every day from countless people looking for food. “It was horrifying: The people calling saying, ‘I’m in my 50s, but I lost my job,’ or ‘I’m a mother with five kids.’”

Those beyond the group’s service area, Spear said, were referred to food pantries, such as Island Harvest and Lighthouse Mission if they didn’t qualify for a senior nutrition program.

Pre-pandemic, Three Village got its meals from the kitchens at two hospitals and a nursing home, said Diane Melidosian, a board member and volunteer driver. During the peak of the pandemic, the nursing home pulled out of the program to protect the health and safety of residents and employees.

Diner steps up

So Setauket Village Diner "stepped up,” said Melidosian, 67, of Stony Brook. “He’s doing eight meals a day for us. So that was a really nice surprise, and that’s something that really helped us. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to service one whole segment of our population.”

The diner's owner, Constantinos Drepaniotis, said he learned about the need from a customer who is affiliated with Meals on Wheels. “I told her, I’m always looking to help out, especially local organizations,” he said. “I said I’d be more than happy to do it.” The diner gets reimbursed $5.35 per person per day, for a two-meal lunch and dinner.

From April through June 2019, Three Village Meals on Wheels made 3,300 deliveries (two meals a day, five days a week) to 62 clients. For the same period this year, it made 2,335 deliveries to 43 clients. As of August, it was serving 50 clients. 

The drop during the pandemic, Spear speculated, may have occurred because clients were reluctant to have drivers come to their homes; other clients may have family working from home who can prepare meals.

Mason M., who has cerebral palsy among other disabilities, has been receiving deliveries from Three Village for about the past eight months. In July, Three Village Meals on Wheels volunteer Debbie Bonilla was scheduled to deliver to Mason along her route.

“Usually, I have an aide here with me during the day, but sometimes if someone’s out sick or something like that, my parents work during the day, so sometimes I don’t have a way to get food,” explained Mason, 25, of Port Jefferson Station.

The food deliveries — one hot and one cold meal a day — are a lifeline for Mason. “I know that sometimes the funding for the program is lacking, so I’m grateful that they gave me a spot,” Mason said, adding, “The drivers are all great. They’re so friendly.”

And, for at least one Meals on Wheels driver, the work is equally satisfying. “I’m very lucky to have a job that I feel like I’m helping so many people, and that I’m touching people’s lives,” Kessler said. “You want to feel like you’re doing something that’s so important. That’s what I want out of my life.”

Help where it's needed

Long Island's senior citizens and others with limited mobility can find a Meals on Wheels program through the county Offices for the Aging: in Nassau County, call 516-227-8900; in Suffolk, call 631-853-8200. Beyond government and corporate funding, Meals on Wheels organizations depend on private donations to finance their operations. If you or someone you know needs meals delivered or you’d like to make a contribution, contact one of these organizations:

Nassau County

  • EAC Network / Meals on Wheels, 50 Clinton St., Suite 107, Hempstead; 516-539-0150
  • Catholic Charities, 338 N. Main St., 3rd Floor, Freeport; 516-733-7045

Suffolk County

  • Three Village Meals on Wheels, 216 Christian Ave., Stony Brook; 631-689-7070
  • East Hampton Meals on Wheels; 33 Newton Lane, Suite 205, East Hampton; 631-329-1669
— Arlene Gross

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