Home delivery offers heart and health to area’s elders

Perhaps nothing says love better than a hot meal or a warm, smiling face. Just ask the dozens of elderly islanders who have nutritious meals delivered to their front door by someone genuinely happy to see them.

Now imagine those smiling faces are your only source of human interaction, and those hot meals are the only things keeping you nourished.

Meals on Wheels, and its focus on nutrition, works tirelessly to keep the islands’ aging population well-fed and socially connected, a mission that has faced intense challenges this past year with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An amendment to the Older Americans Act of 1965, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in March 1972, created a the national nutrition program for people 60 years old and older.

What began as a means of enabling the country’s aging population to remain healthy and independent has grown into an effective organization that helps more than 2.4 million seniors annually across the country.

A study commissioned by Meals on Wheels America reported in 2017 that “about 10 million older adults in America ­— one in six — face the threat of hunger.” The same report explains that adults who are food insecure are 50% more likely to have diabetes; 60% more likely to have congestive heart failure or a heart attack; and 30% more likely to have at least one ADL impairment (activities for daily living); and that 33% of older adults admitted to the hospital may be undernourished. Further, the report suggests the situation will grow more dire as the elderly population of 57 million in 2010 is anticipated to reach 112 million by 2050.

With a generous share of San Juan County’s population over the age of 60, Meals on Wheels occupies a front seat in addressing food insecurity on the islands. A joint partnership between Whatcom Council on Aging, the Senior Services Council of San Juan County and the Northwest Regional Council on Aging coordinates both hot meals served three times a week at senior centers on Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Island as well as home delivery for those unable to leave their residences.

When the pandemic hit, closing the islands’ senior centers meant retooling the program to a 100% delivery model.

“Before COVID we were delivering about 90 meals a week,” explained Jami Mitchell, Senior Services Specialist for San Juan County, who is based on Orcas. “Since the pandemic we‘re serving upwards of 210 meals every week.”

Mitchell detailed the challenges of meeting the program’s increased demand ­— and it starts with a job opening.

“Currently, we need a temporary cook. Our permanent cook is on medical leave and the only way we’re managing is with the help of a cook who travels to Orcas from Bellingham every Monday and prepares Monday’s hot meal. She also brings with her enough frozen meals that have been created from scratch in Bellingham for two days of the week’s deliveries. Those meals are then heated immediately before they’re delivered so they arrive at their destination piping hot. Further, our volunteers create cold sacks filled with such items as salads, milk, condiments, fruit and chips, which accompany every hot meal.”

The program’s dramatic increase has meant a need for more volunteers. Mike Knight, who assists in the Orcas kitchen on Mondays, is a self-described foodie who enjoys helping out with the program.

“I love being of service,“ he said. “I was raised to help and find helping incredibly rewarding.”

Knight, who had bakery training in the late 1980s, often helps create the desserts that compliment the home deliveries.

“I love this work and I love having the opportunity to help by doing something I love,” he said.

To ensure a food-secure future for San Juan County elders, and celebrate the program’s March beginnings, the Senior Services Council of San Juan County hopes to draw attention to the program and its needs with a “March for Meals” campaign that involves local celebrities helping with the meal delivery. Anna Coffelt-Kuetzing, manager of Mullis Center on San Juan and home to the island’s senior center, considers the outreach an opportunity to shine a bright light on the county’s programs and the communities’ needs.

“We hope people will be moved to recognize the vital role Meals on Wheels plays in the health of all the islands’ elderly. Education is important,” she said. “As are donations.”

“The financial support of the program is often misunderstood,” offered Julie Meyers, Director of Meals on Wheels for the Whatcom Council on Aging covering San Juan County.

”While Meals on Wheels is often perceived as being predominantly funded by the federal and county governments,” Myers explains, “the truth is the majority of its revenue comes from fundraising. Nutrition is at the heart of the program. All the meals contain at least one-third of the average senior’s dietary requirements. They’re low in sodium and rich in Vitamin A, C, Iron and Calcium. Making sure the program continues to keep our seniors healthy is at the heart of everything we do. That, and making sure every one of our county’s elders knows someone is looking out for them.”

Miguel Villarreal has volunteered with the Orcas Senior Center for more than four years. His role and responsibilities have evolved, but one aspect of his job has remained constant: the human interaction.

“The food is important, of course,” he said. “But the visit is equally important. The opportunity to check in with someone, to see how they’re doing, is one of the strongest features of the program. Especially during the pandemic. So many people were frightened in the early days of the pandemic. We were able to offer a steady source of encouragement and, at the same time, see how they were handling the isolation and whether they needed any other services.”

Villarreal says it’s the litte things that can make a huge difference.

“Something as simple as a smile can mean the world to someone who’s unsure of what the future holds,” he said.

In fact, it’s that human connection that is often cited as the most valuable aspect of the program. Mitchell shared an example.

“This past Christmas, home delivery clients on Orcas were treated to a plate of Christmas cookies baked by dozens of volunteers,” Mitchell said. “One client in particular, shared how much that plate of cookies meant. She said that those cookies allowed her to be able to offer anyone who came to her door a taste of the holiday. Because of those cookies, she was able to participate in the holiday spirit of giving. It still brings tears to my eyes.”