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Demand for Meals on Wheels spikes

  • Volunteers Karen Woodward,of Lebanon, N.H., left, and Sharon Otto, of Lebanon, pack pumpkin pie into Meals on Wheels bags at the Upper Valley Senior Center in Lebanon, on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2020 10:44:47 PM
Modified: 3/27/2020 10:44:59 PM

LEBANON — A few weeks ago, the Upper Valley Senior Center was delivering about 60 meals to homebound residents and serving another 60 or so to people who attended congregate meals Monday-Friday at the Lebanon-based organization.

But after the COVID-19 pandemic led the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council to close its eight senior centers to the public on March 16, the demand for Meals on Wheels has skyrocketed.

“The home-delivered meal has doubled, and that’s only in a week and a half. I’m sure it will continue to increase,” said Kathleen Vasconcelos, executive director of the Senior Citizens Council. “That increase is not just our congregate meal clients. I think that word is spreading that this service is available and older adults are trying to stay in. It’s positive. We just need the support to continue to do this.”

While Canaan’s Mascoma Area Senior Center and North Haverhill’s Horse Meadow Senior Center have also seen a rise in home-delivered meal requests, they have not increased at the same rate that Lebanon has. The rise in home-delivered meals has added an additional financial strain on the council, which was already on pace to run out of its state funding by the second week of April, Vasconcelos said. The fiscal year contract is supposed to extend through the end of June.

“We’re probably close to being there,” she said. “Right now we have the resources. One of the big challenges is we don’t know how long this will go on. To cover the additional meals and supplies, we need additional funding.”

Council staff have already started applying for grants and emergency funding. They have not yet had to dip into its reserve funds, Vasconcelos said.

While the council anticipates being able to transfer congregate meal units to home-delivered ones, that likely won’t be enough to offset the difference, especially as more seniors who are at risk of developing serious complications from the novel coronavirus stay in their homes.

During the first week the Upper Valley Senior Center was closed, people could stop by to pick up hot meals to take home, but as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tightened social distancing guidelines, the nonprofit switched to a delivery-only model. One day a week, people receive five frozen meals instead of the daily hot meals they are accustomed to.

Kitchen staff are cooking and packaging more than 200 meals per day, said Jill Vahey, executive director of the Upper Valley Senior Center. On Thursday, 625 meals were delivered.

“We’re trying to prep the day before so we can stay ahead of ourselves,” Vahey said, adding that the Lebanon center gets more requests in every day. “We were always doing two meals. Now we’re just doing mass production of meals.”

They’ve also had to adjust their delivery model. Prior to COVID-19, there were five home-delivered meal routes and meals were delivered by volunteers, Vahey said. There are now eight routes and the center is relying more on its staff, including bus drivers, to make deliveries. Ten of the 14 volunteer drivers made the decision to step back from their duties during the pandemic.

“Most of my volunteers are over the age of 70. Some are in their 80s,” Vahey said. “They’re at risk.”

Debbie Babineau, of Lebanon, has worked at the senior center since 2000 and is now helping to package and deliver meals. Prior to the pandemic, people would hand the meals right to recipients.

“We have to be careful. We’re not supposed to have close contact,” said Babineau, who delivered meals to four people in Plainfield on Thursday. “Now we’re knocking on the door, putting it on the ground and stepping back.”

In addition to delivering meals, staff are also providing recipients with nonperishable goods from its food shelf and with pet food.

“It’s going to need to be replenished very soon. We know that folks need toilet paper; we have not been able to locate additional rolls of toilet paper, but we’re working on it,” Vasconcelos said, adding that they could also use another freezer or two for meal storage. “The two biggest things that we’re in need of so we can continue to help seniors is funding and shelf-stable food donations (including pet food).”

In his four years as a bus driver for the Upper Valley Senior Center, Bruce McCoy, of South Royalton, has made connections with many of the people he regularly takes to grocery stores and doctor’s appointments. Now, he is helping to deliver meals to those same people.

“We know them by name. They tell us their life stories every chance they get and we care for them,” McCoy said.

Prior to the pandemic, people who received meals were getting physically checked in on five days per week. Now, with visits down to once a week, staffers are worried about the emotional impact that will have.

“One major concern for is the folks who would normally come to the senior center for social interaction is they’re now isolated at home,” Vasconcelos said, adding that they’ve been reaching out to people more via phone. “We’re checking on them every day, but they’re missing the social interaction.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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