Meals on Wheels adapts to new reality

TRUST Meals on Wheels director Eleonore Balbach places meals inside a volunteer's car on March 25. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Standing outside of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Kingfield, Nancy Biele smiled and waved to Meals on Wheels volunteers as they picked up the day’s deliveries.

“We’re talking to people we haven’t heard from in a long time,” one longtime volunteer told her from her car.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday was the first day of a new delivery model for the Judson Church-based Meals on Wheels program, which is operated by the interfaith coalition TRUST. Biele is the coalition’s executive director.

TRUST is taking precautions to limit contact and ensure that volunteers maintain a safe distance from clients. As of Wednesday, the organization is delivering meals once a week instead of each day to limit the potential spread of the virus.

Meals on Wheels volunteer Jan Hoffer (middle) places meals in a Burley owned by longtime volunteer Zan Ceeley during a March 25 delivery run.

To ensure they have enough food, clients are being provided with three to seven frozen meals, program director Eleonore Balbach said. The exact number is dependent on how many meals they typically receive.

Volunteers on Wednesday had meals placed in their cars instead of going inside the church kitchen to get them. Once at the clients’ homes or apartments, they were asked to place the meal at the door instead of handing them to people.

Despite the precautions, volunteers were upbeat as they worked and indicated that Wednesday largely felt like a normal delivery run.

Craig Wiester, a Judson church member who has delivered for a couple of months, had two deliveries Wednesday.

John Cook was the only volunteer to arrive on foot Wednesday.

He exchanged brief greetings with one client and left the other’s meals on a bench outside of the person’s unit.

Wiester said volunteering for Meals on Wheels gives him an excuse to get out of his home. “I saw the gas station at [36th & Lyndale] selling gas for $1.69, but where am I going to go?” he said.

He’s been keeping in touch with friends and older members of Judson church who he knows are alone, just to make sure they’re doing okay.

Linden Hills resident Zan Ceeley, who has been volunteering for 10 years, delivered meals via bike on Wednesday like she usually does. “It’s kind of like a win-win,” she said of exercising and doing volunteer work.

Ceeley typically talks face to face with the clients after delivering the meals. For about one-third of clients, the conversation with the volunteers is their only daily interaction with another person, Balbach said.

To ensure clients still have interaction, Balbach has set up a “buddy” system where clients and volunteers check in via email or phone. Ceeley said a client texted her to say she got the meal delivery.

Clients seemed like they were in good spirits, she said.

Balbach, who worked with two volunteers Wednesday to distribute meals, said she thought the first day of the new model went well.

About 40 people volunteered to deliver meals to clients. On a typical weekday, about 11 to 13 clients deliver meals.

“The volunteers are coming out of the woodwork,” she said.

Balbach directs a Meals on Wheels program that has operated for over 50 years.

Clients are generally people who are older and/or disabled who might be homebound. There were 78 last week; now, there are 91 and Balbach predicted numbers will keep growing.

She said monetary donations would be most helpful for the program at this point. Even though many clients’ meals are funded through different government programs, the funding doesn’t cover their true cost, she said.

Across the Twin Cities, the 32 Meals on Wheels programs have seen a 300% uptick in demand, said Grant Boelter, communications manager for Metro Meals on Wheels.

There have been 1,900 new volunteer sign-ups in the last two weeks, compared with the typical 200 to 300 sign-ups a month.

Financially, the organization has seen the type of support it typically sees at the end of the year, when it gets the bulk of its contributions, he said.

The metrowide organization is taking volunteer sign-ups on its website and is referring people to locations where they need help.

“We’re doing everything we can to get out meals to people,” Boelter said.