Three days per week, a small company of volunteers travels around Seaside and Cannon Beach, delivering meals to more than four dozen seniors and providing a vital human connection that contributes to their well-being.
“We’re an anchor,” said Chris Duffy, coordinator of the local senior meals and Meals on Wheels program run out of the Bob Chisholm Community Center.
The senior meal program is managed via a contract with NorthWest Seniors and Disability Services, which has meal sites throughout Clatsop, Tillamook, Yamhill, Marion and Polk counties.
For the Meals on Wheels portion of the program, volunteers deliver to clients on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Those 60 and older receive a hot meal as well as a frozen meal for the following day. Clients are also welcome to stop by from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Monday through Friday for curbside meal pickup, which has become the long-term alternative to meals being served inside the senior center.
Under statewide health protocols and procedures, clients now drive up to the building and indicate from a distance how many meals they need. Volunteers donning masks run the prepackaged food out to the cars, one at a time, and put it in a trunk or pass it through a window.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the senior meals program has seen an influx of participants. In March, NorthWest Seniors authorized more meals to meet the big spike in demand, according to Duffy. When the state ordered a two-week freeze from Nov. 18 to Dec. 2, Duffy said they anticipated another increase.
“The trend is, when things are more in shutdown mode, our demand increases, especially curbside,” Duffy said.
On the first day of the freeze, they served more than 30 curbside meals, while during the summer — when more businesses were open and COVID-19 cases seemed steady — they were doing about 15 to 20 meals per day. Since the spring, the Meals on Wheels program has served about 40 to 50 clients per week.
At the same time, the program is operating with fewer volunteers, particularly in the kitchen, to accommodate social distancing. While the program usually has about 30 people volunteering in a given month, it now has about 10 volunteers handling meal delivery and two in the kitchen to run curbside pickup.
“We’re doing more meals with less people,” Duffy said, adding it shines a light on the work of the volunteers.
If a senior has a caregiver, relative or friend who is able to pick up curbside, that is the preferred method.
According to Duffy, “our Meals on Wheels routes are pretty full.”
Either way, however, “we’re here as an anchor to make sure they get a really good meal,” he said.
‘More than a meal’
According to NorthWest Seniors, Meals on Wheels drivers deliver more than a meal, providing a nutritious meal, a friendly visit and a safety check to seniors who are living independently in their own homes.
For volunteer Jan Ball, that is one of the most meaningful parts of participating in the program.
“It is important for us to have contact with people,” she said. “Part of our job is to be sure they’re OK.”
She recalls an occasion when a client didn’t answer the door at drop-off, which led her to contact the police department to conduct a wellness check.
Ball and her husband, Bob, got involved with Meal on Wheels upon moving to the area more than five years ago. They run a route on Wednesdays that includes stops in both Seaside and Cannon Beach. Bob often drives while she drops off the meals. Because of the pandemic, protocols have changed.
Ball wears a mask and can’t take as much time to visit with each client. “It just means we can’t have quite as much contact,” she said.
She’ll stay at the door to talk, unless she needs to take the food inside for a client with limited mobility.
The Balls only miss their route two or three times per year, when they’re out of town. That dedication gives them the opportunity to know their clients really well, she said.
While there is a single hot meal featured each day, the delivery drivers get a variety of frozen meals to distribute as well.
Ball has learned over time what her clients like and what they don’t like.
“I can pick through and find something if I know somebody doesn’t like something or can’t eat something,” she said.
She appreciates the opportunity to develop those relationships both with clients and fellow volunteers.
“It’s a wonderful program,” she said. “We like to doing it. It’s just part of who we are.”