The Urgency Of Meals On Wheels In The Shadow Of COVID-19

Mar 18, 2020

Credit Metro Meals on Wheels

The spread of COVID-19 has revealed the vulnerability of Idaho's most susceptible population: seniors. Coronavirus is particularly harsh when it targets older adults, prompting most seniors to shelter in place. Sadly, it's the same demographic in need of healthy nourishment.

Morning Edition host George Prentice visited with Grant Jones, director of Metro Meals on Wheels, which hand delivers nearly 2,000 meals to Ada County seniors every day. COVID-19 has added several new challenges to the essential service.

“Seniors are often overlooked. They’re often forgotten. And we know that 1 out of 6 seniors is food-insecure. “

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. Taking care of ourselves and taking care of others has taken on a special urgency of late, and indeed that's why we want to spend a few minutes this morning with Grant Jones, Director of Meals on Wheels here in the Treasure Valley. Grant, good morning.

GRANT JONES: Good morning, George. Thanks for having me.

PRENTICE: I'm reminded that too many seniors … thousands of Idaho seniors …. are in search of a meal on any given day and that is your task. Have you been able to wrap your arms around the urgency and the need for your service, perhaps now more than ever?

JONES: Well, you know that's a good point. It's really tough to wrap our arms around what's going on in general, but seniors are often overlooked. They're often forgotten. We do know that one out of every six seniors on a regular basis is food insecure, so we just have to make sure during these very difficult and trying times that all of those seniors have food.

PRENTICE: Can you give us the numbers?

JONES: Yeah, there are over 37,000 seniors just in the State of Idaho that are considered food insecure. But we're so grateful we get to serve over 1200 seniors every weekday in Ada County.

PRENTICE: Okay, in Ada County, and if I remember, it's hot meals on weekdays, frozen meals for weekends too.

JONES: That's exactly right. We do hot meals each weekday. They're delivered to home bound seniors and also served, up until recently, in a dining room setting at the senior centers and then frozen meals for the weekend.

PRENTICE: We just heard the other day from Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, that the senior center will be a curbside pickup now.

JONES: Yeah, in fact, we're offering curbside service at both the Boise and Meridian Senior Centers. The Nampa Senior Center, which we're not in charge of, they're doing it also. I rather suspect that Eagle, Star and Kuna will follow suit, and we do serve those senior centers.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about how you’re changing things with staff and volunteers.

JONES: You know, we're always very conscientious and very deliberate and very diligent in making sure that we respect the health and wellbeing of our seniors, but we've had to ramp it up a little bit. I think that's the best way to put it. We've put some measures into place that maybe we should be doing all the time, and this may become normal. I don't know. We're encouraging all of our people to use sanitizers or wipes between each home-delivered visit. Our drivers are using those on a regular basis. We've cleaned all of our vehicles very, very well, very thoroughly. We hate to do this because we always need volunteers, but we're telling people if they don't feel well at all, please call in and don't deliver on that day.

PRENTICE: Are you in need of volunteers?

JONES: We always need volunteers, but this is a normal thing because we're growing so fast. As you know, the Treasure Valley is growing. Seniors are over a third of that growth, so we're growing. We're up 200 meals a day from this time year, so under normal circumstances we're growing like crazy.

PRENTICE: Can you now talk from a user standpoint and in our current environment, the possible reluctance to come to the door?

JONES: Yeah, and we have had a few seniors that are doing that. Here's another measure that we're taking here in the very near future, probably starting tomorrow, where the meal will be put in a bag and left on the door handle, because a senior can reach that easily, not on the ground but at the door handle. But, because the meal is important, but it's that safety check, that contact, we are going to ask our volunteer to remain on the premises to make sure that they do come and get that meal and that they are okay and that they have some interaction from a distance. But they will at least leave that meal for them on the door handle.

PRENTICE: What are the sources of your operating income, and how vulnerable are those sources?

JONES: I wish I didn't have to tell you this, but we're extremely vulnerable. We get reimbursed through federal funding for every meal that we deliver and serve at a senior center. Well, with the senior centers offering curbside service ... Here's an example. We only had 11 people that came and picked up that meal, and normally that senior-

PRENTICE: This occurred on your first day of curbside service?

JONES: Exactly. That senior center would normally have probably 80 to 100 people. In Meridian, we had 18 people that came and picked up a meal. Normally they would have 125 to 150, so we didn't get reimbursed.

PRENTICE: But a big part of this is going to be communication [crosstalk 00:04:31] on our part.

JONES: Thank you.

PRENTICE: But your point is that you need and want to deliver those, not only to provide, but also for the reimbursement.

JONES: That's exactly right, because that reimbursement helps us keep the program going. And so my task in the near future and maybe longer term, depending on how this all shakes out, will be to raise even more money, and I have to raise a lot of money as it is. Next time you see me I'll have even less hair.

PRENTICE: Give me some numbers as far as staff and volunteers.

JONES: Yeah, we only have 17 staff members.

PRENTICE: That is stunning.

JONES: Yeah, it is stunning to do that many meals every day. So, 1200 hot meals every day, and then on the weekend, about 850 frozen meals, plus our Blue Cross program. Plus we have two senior retirement communities that we serve. So, 17 employees ... I always call them miracle workers. They amaze me every day. I'm so proud of them. They have stepped up with this unusual circumstance, this unusual situation. Even with our curbside program, they've all stepped up. They're all on board to make sure they help the seniors. And then we have 400 volunteers. It sounds like a lot, but it's never enough.

PRENTICE: All the best to you. He is Grant Jones, director of Meals on Wheels here in Ada County. Thank you.

JONES: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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