Ypsilanti Mayor Beth Bashert recently stepped in to help deliver meals Photo courtesy Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels
Ypsilanti Mayor Beth Bashert recently stepped in to help deliver meals Photo courtesy Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels

Despite challenges from the pandemic, Meals on Wheels programs remain determined to provide service to elderly Michiganders up against both hunger and isolation.

YPSILANTI, MI — The coronavirus has changed the lives of almost everyone, not just in Michigan but around the world. But for already vulnerable communities, that change can be a daunting challenge. 

Thankfully, support structures still exist, even if in a changed form.

In Ypsilanti, elderly home-bound and food insecure Michiganders can still count on Meals on Wheels to provide a lifeline with both food and companionship. Though Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels (YMOW) has dropped from service six days a week to three, they provide two days worth of food at a time to ensure no one relying on them goes hungry. 

But their delivery drivers greet their clients from a distance of six feet, clad in masks, gloves and protective goggles, and are no longer allowed to enter a client’s home. These new protocols fit with best practices to avoid spreading the coronavirus, particularly in such a vulnerable community. 

“As of now our clients have the food they need. Along with their regular meal deliveries, YMOW has stocked our clients’ kitchens with shelf-stable meals, frozen meals and pantry staples to meet their needs in the case of a service disruption,” YMOW’s communications coordinator Sandy Bosch told The ‘Gander. “But that doesn’t fill their need for social interaction.

“Many of our clients live alone and rely on their daily visit from YMOW as a relief from isolation. The smiles they look forward to each day are now seen only through a mask and at a safe distance.”

The Challenges of Coronavirus

Bosch also admitted struggles YMOW is facing in light of the pandemic. It isn’t just a matter of training drivers on new protocols or the distance clients in severe isolation face, but also financial struggles caused by the pandemic that raise concerns.

Volunteer help has become limited, increasing YMOW’s payroll costs, the organization spent $25,000 getting clients nonperishable meals, and around $1,000 a week in non-food essentials like soap and toilet paper for clients. On top of that, YMOW has needed to buy additional coolers and hot bags.

Worse is the struggle to get the personal protective equipment (PPE) drivers rely on, both for their own safety and the safety of vulnerable seniors. YMOW is relying on handmade masks and lacks enough gloves, sanitizer and disinfecting wipes to best protect both staff and clients.

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“The cost of providing for our clients during this time continues to mount,” said Bosch. “Because our clients are among the most vulnerable, we expect to continue our current procedures through the end of June, and perhaps even through the end of 2020.”

Which is a long road to be understaffed, underprotected and dealing with mounting, recurring expenses. 

And YMOW isn’t alone. In March, the AARP reported on the challenges faced by Meals on Wheels programs nationwide. In particular, volunteerism has been dwindling. This is because a large portion of Meals on Wheels volunteers are themselves elderly, and both because they are reticent to take on the risk of exposure and because the programs don’t want to risk the health of their volunteers keeping a program fully-staffed is a unique challenge of the moment.

“We had a lot of our volunteers quit because they’re already over 60,” said Michelle Bottrall, Development Manager for Meals On Wheels Western Michigan (MOWWM). “I don’t know if we’re struggling, we’re working a lot of hours … We are determined that we will do this and not have a waiting list. That everyone who needs food will have food.”

Bottrall told The ‘Gander that the staff that remains, though, has been tireless in their efforts to carry out that mission. If one thread can connect both YMOW and MOWWM it would be a determination to carry out the essential service they provide despite the obstacles. 

Some Meals on Wheels programs have been able to make up for the loss in senior volunteers in an unexpected way, reports the Washington Post — by recruiting college students who suddenly have a lot of spare time on their hands. When Saginaw County needed extra hands, the sheriff’s office volunteered. But this hasn’t been a practical solution for every individual program.

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It’s also hard for programs to keep supplies in stock. Not only are PPE supplies scarce, but with the panic at grocery stores being what it has been the past several months, Meals on Wheels programs’ supply chains have been stressed. Suppliers have faced difficulty keeping retailers in stock, let alone wholesalers and charities, said Bottrall. 

Not all Meals on Wheels programs have been able to keep themselves open during the pandemic. Both Genesee and Midland counties meal programs were shuttered, according to Flint’s ABC affiliate. Nationwide, Meals on Wheels services were already feeling the stresses of the pandemic back in early March, and since then the challenges have continued to mount. 

As USA Today reports, in a typical year the network of Meals on Wheels programs faces the already-daunting challenge of delivering more than 200 million meals a year to millions of elderly Americans. In Western Michigan, Bottrall said Meals on Wheels has seen the number of new clients and restarts of service triple since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Looking at different programs across the nation, those same challenges are faced across the board, and each individual program has had to chart its own course. Adding to both the strain and the determination is just how essential a service Meals on Wheels is to elderly Americans. MOWWM is aware, as many programs are, that they are the only means by which some people are able to acquire food. And they provide an important service in combating isolation;

What Meals on Wheels Means to Older Michiganders

It isn’t just the food Meals on Wheels provides. As CBS News reports, these programs provide often the only point of interpersonal contact for elderly Americans. Social distancing has made that even more of a struggle. Handshakes, hugs and conversation are as much part of the service as the food itself in normal times.

And these times are far from normal. There\s a lot of fear in the communities served by Meals on Wheels. They are among those most vulnerable to the coronavirus, and are acutely aware of it in a time of constant coronavirus reporting. 

“They’re scared,” said Bottrall. “Understandably so, especially when this is all you see on the news all day, every day. They’re really very frightened.” 

And because of that, Meals on Wheels programs provide another critical service in this time of crisis — they deliver hope. MOWWM provided what peace of mind they could to their clients, both in the form of trying to calm fears and leave extra emergency meals as a tangible reassurance. 

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“We’ve initiated a weekly wellness call program not only to help fight our clients’ loneliness, but also as a tool to track their overall well-being,” said YMOW’s Bosch. “Trained callers ask about physical symptoms, access to food and medicine, and they take time to chat. YMOW staff, including our social worker, then follow up on any client needs.”

In a more traditional time, Meals on Wheels not only acts as a major point of social contact and provider of meals, but as a wellness check service. NPR reported on a woman who suffered an injury from a fall who was stuck in place for over a day, but as a Meals on Wheels client she is now confident she wouldn’t wait so long to be rescued again. Though in-person visits might be less frequent, Meals on Wheels programs like YMOW are aware of the importance of this service as well.

Meals on Wheels provides these services at a fraction of the operational expense of a facility like a nursing home, NPR reports, and though the financial situation is rough at a lot of these programs nationwide, they remain committed to the cause. 

“We are in desperate need of funding for this pandemic,” admitted Bottrall. She encouraged members of the community to go to MOWWM’s website and consider donations to their coronavirus relief fund. 

Communities Coming Together During Coronavirus

The ‘Gander has reported on a number of ways the coronavirus has changed important services provided to vulnerable members of Michigan communities from shelters protecting Michiganders from abuse to local groups ensuring Detroiters got bottled water while waiting for the city to turn service back on.  

One message shared by everyone from domestic violence shelters to Meals on Wheels programs is to check in on one another in this time of extreme isolation. 

“If you know a senior and you love a senior, check on them, make sure that they’re okay,” Bottrall told The ‘Gander. “Give them a phone call, do whatever you’ve gotta do, but don’t let them be forgotten.”

In a time of struggles and darkness, reminders that Michiganders are all in this together are welcome moments of sunshine.