Adeline Hanson typically gets together to eat lunch with a group of about five others at Bethel Manor, where she lives. Her lunch group also has another thing in common: The food is all the same.

Their lunches are the same because they are all supplied by the Meals on Wheels program.

For the 96-year-old Hanson, Meals on Wheels is about much more than simply a meal.

"It's something for us to look forward to every day," she said last week as she put together a jigsaw puzzle. "I don't have to cook and bake. It keeps me out of the kitchen."

Martin Martin of Alexandria is another big supporter of the program. For the past five years, Meals on Wheels has been delivering two meals each weekday to him. One meal is for Martin and the other for his wife. He said they often will split one meal for lunch and save the other for an evening meal.

Although Martin, 92, still drives and does some shopping, he said that having access to the food delivery program has been a lifesaver.

"It really saves the day," he said. "I don't know what I would have done if I wouldn't have had it."

Filling a real need

For 39 years, the Meals on Wheels program has been providing meals for seniors in the Alexandria area who otherwise may not get three nutritious meals each day.

The program provides one hot meal delivered each day Monday through Friday, with the option to order frozen meals for the weekends.

As people age they may not have the energy, ability or interest in shopping and preparing meals, said Janet Nevalainen, site manager for the Meals on Wheels program at the Alexandria Senior Community Center. Because of that, they tend to fall into a pattern of snacking throughout the day, rather than preparing actual meals, she said.

"Their nutritional value goes down and that gets them into trouble medically," Nevalainen said. "This is designed to provide one-third of the required daily amounts of nutrition value. We know they're getting one complete, balanced meal in the course of the day."

According to a Senate Aging Committee hearing in 2017, more than 10 million Americans older than age 60 experienced food insecurity in 2014, and about half of older adults are either malnourished or at risk of being malnourished. It is estimated that food insecurity results in more than $51 billion of excess health care costs each year.

By 2025, projections suggest that the problem could increase by 50 percent, Nevalainen said.

"The need is there," she said.

To help meet that need, the local Meals on Wheels program prepares and delivers about 100 hot meals each weekday (about 2,200 each month), as well as frozen meals for weekends. The area served by the program includes three routes that cover Alexandria, Bethel Manor and the lakes area just outside the city.

However, sometimes the value of the program goes beyond just nutrition and convenience. Nevalainen explained that many of their customers live alone and rarely get out of the house, which means they don't often interact with other people.

"Sometimes that driver is the only person they see all day," she said.

Volunteering to help

One of those drivers is Dennis Gronholz. He has been volunteering his time to deliver meals for the past 10 years. Currently he delivers meals two mornings each week. He also volunteers his time one day a week at Habitat for Humanity.

Gronholz retired about five years ago, and now, at age 85, he likes to stay busy and help people.

"They're happy to see you," he said. "They're so appreciative."

Gronholz also has a reputation for always being willing to help out the people he delivers meals to, whether it is helping with a TV remote, getting their mail or fixing a garage door. He once made a special trip to the store - right in the middle of his deliveries - to get food for someone's dog.

"I've enjoyed it," he added. "It gives me something to do. It's made me feel like I'm needed and wanted."

The staff of the Alexandria Meals on Wheels consists of two paid positions, two kitchen volunteers and 23 volunteer drivers (some are couples who work together). Meals are designed by a registered dietician and are prepared Monday through Friday at the Alexandria Senior Community Center.

Meal preparation begins at about 7 a.m., and after meals are packed and sealed in containers, drivers start delivering at about 10 a.m. A congregate dining meal is also held at the senior center each weekday at 11:30 a.m.

Meals are delivered year round. However during the school year, if schools are closed due to weather, there will be no Meals on Wheels delivery.

Meals typically consist of a hot main course, along with milk, bread and a dessert item.

The suggested donation for each meal is $4 for those over age 60. However, Nevalainen said, some people pay more and some less and no one is denied a meal if they are not able to contribute.

Services in Alexandria, as well as the nine-county area in west-central Minnesota, are run by Nutrition Services, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides senior meals through a contract with the Land of the Dancing Sky - West Central Area Agency on Aging, with funding from the Federal Older Americans Act through the Minnesota Board on Aging.

Home delivered senior meals are also available in the other smaller cities throughout Douglas County. For more information about meals, visit www.nsiseniornutrition.com or call 1-888-835-5697.

Nevalainen added that an additional benefit of the program is the peace of mind it gives to caregivers or children who are worried about their aging parents.

"It's a relief for the caregivers," she said. "It's a relief for the kids."