By BRUCE EDWARDS
It’s a nutritional lifeline for many seniors — a healthy meal delivered to the home or to one of a number of meal sites around Rutland County and beyond.
Among the 15 programs run by the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging, Meals on Wheels is one of the most vital to the welfare of seniors, said Executive Director Sandy Conrad.
“The Meals on Wheels program to me is essential, because its focus and mission is to serve the most frail, the most homebound and the most poor of our elders,” Conrad said.
The meals are prepared by East Creek Catering on Belden Road.
“We serve meals from Brattleboro up to Vergennes, and about 500 meals a day just in Rutland County,” said Marc Scott, East Creek Catering general manager.
In all, East Creek prepares 1,000 meals a day, five days a week, for seniors in Rutland, Addison, Windsor and Windham counties.
“Our basic goal is to keep seniors in their homes,” said Doug Jones, East Creek’s food and beverage manager. “If they couldn’t stay in their homes, there would be a lot more people in nursing homes.
“That’s where they want to be — in their homes — and this helps keep them in their homes,” said Jones, who has been with the Meals on Wheels program since the 1980s.
About 75 percent of meals are home delivered, with the rest delivered to 13 meal sites around the county, including the Rutland Senior Center on Deer Street. Meals served at congregate sites range from monthly to two or three days a week.
Penny Jones (no relation), who manages the drivers and volunteers, said three-quarters of seniors are over 75 years old. “We actually save the community money by not having to have them spend as long in the hospital,” Jones said.
It’s not just about the nutritious meal either. The volunteer who delivers the meal serves the double purpose of a wellness check.
“If we go to somebody’s house and they’re not home, we have an emergency contact … to make sure they’re OK,” said Doug Jones.
Conrad agreed, saying there are any number of times drivers have made a delivery only to find an elder on the floor of their home or ill.
“They seriously not only serve a meal but save lives,” she said.
Preparing and delivering 1,000 meals a day is quite a logistical undertaking.
The kitchen staff at East Creek starts at 5:30 a.m., so meals are delivered by 11 a.m. Then the prep work begins for the next day’s meal.
If you think the meals are of the pre-packaged or frozen variety, think again.
“Our cooks and chefs in there are making everything from hand,” Scott said. “So if there’s a day that you see meatballs on our menu, four cooks are hand rolling every meatball the day before.”
All the menus are approved by a dietician.
But to get those meals delivered takes an army of paid drivers and volunteers. There are 12 paid drivers and a list of 100 volunteers, including Mayor Christopher Louras.
Because of the time and cost involved, Scott asks seniors who aren’t planning on being home to call ahead before the meal is delivered. He said too often a client won’t be home and the meal ends up discarded or given to someone else.
It costs approximately $7 to prepare and deliver each meal.
Meals on Wheels is funded with federal, state, and local money, which together fall short of what’s needed to run the program.
“We get enough money just to pay for the meals,” Scott said.
The rest of the money is raised through donations and fundraisers. The United Way of Rutland County contributes $38,000.
(East Creek Catering is owned by FitzVogt, a dining services company, which has a contract with the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging.)
With seniors living longer, the need for Meals on Wheels will only increase. “The problem is people (are) getting older and living longer but yet there’s not enough funding to support all the people … that have a need for it,” said Paul Damico, FitzVogt’s regional manager.
Conrad added that Vermont is also the second-oldest state in the country, with more seniors in need of assistance.
“Unfortunately, we are getting to a place where we worry we’re going to have to start wait lists, and that’s a huge concern for us,” said Conrad, who praised United Way of Rutland County for its continued support.
Damico also said the congregate meal sites serve another purpose, giving seniors an opportunity to socialize as well as experience the Meals on Wheels program.
Seniors can make a voluntary donation of $3.50 per meal, or whatever they can afford.
“We don’t turn anybody down,” Scott said.
Because of pride, though, too many seniors would rather go without than accept a free meal.
“It makes a difference, because a lot of them would just eat cereal, literally all day long, if they didn’t get our meal,” Penny Jones said. “So our nutritious meal really makes a difference.”
The local Meals on Wheels program is one of 5,000 across the country delivering one million meals a day, according to Meals on Wheels America.