Hold the caring touch, friendly conversation: It's food only from Meals on Wheels
There was a time when Meals on Wheels provided not only food to older residents, people with disabilities and those in need, but also a caring touch, a friendly conversation and a helping hand.
But all of those extras are being pulled back in this age of the COVID-19 pandemic. For now, it's just the meals.
"When we used to send people out to deliver our food, they would check on our clients, make sure that they were OK, maybe talk with them a little bit," said Debi Genthe, the executive director of Meals on Wheels of Northeastern Illinois, based in Evanston. "Many of our clients live in isolation. They can't get out of their houses, they don't see many people each day, and we would be that person they would see and talk to.
"Now, our top priority has to be not spreading this virus. So the way we do things now is much different."
Food deliveries are left on porches or front stoops instead of being hand-delivered with a smile and friendly conversation.
Meals are delivered weekly instead of daily to reduce the number of times drivers are approaching residences. And the fresh food that used to be assembled in local kitchens has become frozen food supplied by commercial distributors so meals will last for clients for an entire week until the next delivery.
"We are really working hard on keeping everything clean, constantly wiping everything down in our kitchens, and before and after every delivery," Genthe said. "I feel comfort in knowing that we are keeping everything safe so that we do our part not to spread this virus."
Meals on Wheels of Northeastern Illinois typically delivers to approximately 250 clients per week along the lakeshore from Chicago through Evanston, north into Highland Park, Libertyville and Gurnee, and as far as Wisconsin.
And those numbers are increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic by nearly triple. There is a waiting list.
"We would like to increase our reach, and we are about to open a bigger kitchen in Evanston to help with that," Genthe said. "One in six seniors struggles for meals, but we also help people who are younger and have physical and cognitive issues. There are a lot of people in need."
She added that many of those people are susceptible to depression because they are feeling more isolated than ever. With the program's reduced contact, its volunteers also make phone calls to check in on people.
"Everyone is just trying to do whatever they can to look out for each other," she said.
While the demand for Meals on Wheels services has increased during this unsteady time, so has volunteerism within the organization.
"We have about 450 volunteers, and I'm getting about 45 new ones a week," Genthe said. "It's amazing. Everyone is wanting to do something to help. They are home, they are at a loss for what to do, so they are volunteering. They want to give back. We are just hoping that when people get back to work and get back to (their normal routines), that they will continue to volunteer with us.
"That could be a positive to come out of this story."
For more information about Meals on Wheels, visit mealsonwheelsnei.org.