Need for Meals on Wheels keeps on rolling
Right now, 8.3 million seniors experience food insecurity in the U.S., and by 2025, it is estimated that this number will grow to 9.5 million.
Enter Meals on Wheels, a nationwide program that delivers meals to the elderly, homebound and disabled.
In Douglas County, more than 140 people receive meals from this program and similar programs take place in Osakis, Glenwood, Hoffman and Parkers Prairie.
"Some people I deliver to are just afraid," Alexandria's Henry Hyatt noted. "People have forgotten food on the stove and the fire alarms went off. Now, they are afraid to cook on their own."
Hyatt moved to Alexandria in 1962 and, after retiring, became involved with Meals on Wheels.
"The gal in charge of the program was a friend of mine and she asked me if I would be able to deliver food. I just retired and I wasn't doing much so I decided to say yes," he recalled. "I really enjoy the program; I mean I've been doing it for 15 years so let's hope I do!"
Splitting Douglas County into six different routes, the 15 volunteer drivers deliver anywhere from 18 to 50 meals to retirement homes, trailers, apartments and houses, depending on their routes.
"As a volunteer, you deliver meals as often as you want; usually people only deliver once a week for a few hours. Still, it's hard to find people to commit," he said.
Because the program is run mostly off donations, the work force behind the program is also mostly volunteered based. These volunteers cook, package and deliver the food.
"I'm always looking for more volunteers," Meals on Wheel coordinator Tammy Roers said. "Without the volunteers, the food wouldn't be cooked or delivered to the seniors and the whole program would stop. It really takes all of us to make the program work, and we really appreciate it."
Through the program, the seniors have a choice of three different meals each day, all of which are prepared at the Senior Center by volunteers.
Specialty meals for dietary needs, such as diabetic-friendly items, are also prepared, as well as frozen meals for over the weekend.
Some of the seniors' favorite meals include roast beef and mashed potatoes and gravy.
Though the program is mainly about delivering meals, Hyatt has gotten to know many of the people he delivers to.
"The elderly ones especially like to visit for a long time. Usually, they are just happy to have company," he said. "I have met some amazing friends and you start to miss them a lot when they leave the program."
Through his weekly visits, Hyatt has become close friends with many of those receiving meals, even after he stopped delivering food to them.
"I visit some of them at their retirement homes. It's always so great to be able to see them again," he said, recalling a former Meals on Wheels recipient he saw at Grand Arbor. The man's house had been straight out of the 1970s, with shag carpet and dark cabinets. "Seeing people for years at a time really allows you to see the changes in life."
Though life changes, Meals on Wheels has not changed dramatically in the last 15 years.
"There are more meal choices and I now deliver temporary meals to people who recently had a knee or hip surgery and who can't move, but besides that there hasn't been much change," he said.
Like the program, the community's need for it has not changed either.
"We give out over 100 meals and the number of meals and seniors who need the meals are only growing," he said.
In Douglas County, there are no other programs as large as Meals on Wheels, aside from the food shelf, but hundreds of seniors go without nutritious food and are worried about cooking in their own kitchens.
And recently, there have been numerous talks of government cutbacks, including the Meals on Wheels program, which is operated almost entirely on donations and government grants.
"The program and its meals are desperately needed and we want to be able to continue to provide them for these seniors," Roers noted.
Though the future of the program is unsure, she is thankful for all the volunteers she currently has, and glad they have enough community support to continue.
"Being able to help people is why I love the program," Hyatt said. "People appreciate what you do for them and it makes it all worth it."