A new approach to senior meals

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

The Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging (NEI3A) is making changes to their Senior Meals program in order to continue its meal delivery service. Prior to COVID, seniors were delivered hot meals by a dedicated staff of volunteers or immersed themselves in congregate places among friends. However, in an effort to continue providing to the community and to those in need while also keeping staff, volunteers and the elderly safe, NEI3A has made the switch for the month of May to delivering pre-made frozen meals. 

In an interview, NEI3A Program Coordinator Janet Buls indicated it was a slow transition that began in the middle of March, when the congregate meal centers were shut down while the delivery of warm meals went on. It was after Easter when the full change to pre-made frozen meals in packs of seven or 14 was implemented as a way of preventing exposure to COVID-19. 

How does an organization set up for a small delivery operation of warm cooked meals and an even smaller kitchen staff at its communal places transition to a frozen meal delivery service for the roughly 900 to 1,000 individuals serviced across 18 counties? The answer, according to Buls, was with a lot of help. 

The help consisted of international company Trio—the agency’s main vendor—and other organizations such as Sisters Meals, Moms Meals and the local kitchen staff, who all pitch in to cook and freeze the meals that still meet every mandated nutritional requirement. 

However, Buls noted the preparing and packaging of the meals wasn’t the biggest difficulty with the switch. The transportation and delivery of them has been. 

Part of the difficulty lies with the age of the agency’s current volunteers. Buls estimated 60 to 80 percent are older than 60. They represent the vulnerable portion of the population that cannot afford to be overexposed. So, what to do? Enter EARL Public Transit, an existing partner, and not a single day of delivery or meal was missed. In fact, Buls said they’ve expanded routes, added consumers and have received positive feedback from those receiving the new frozen meal packages. 

In Clayton County, only 26 people are currently utilizing the senior meals program. Perhaps Clayton is a county blessed with a formidable senior citizen population, or maybe many don’t know about the program or how to make contact. Utilizing the program is accessible to anyone over 60, regardless of income, because income level does not dictate a person’s level to care or cook for themselves. Sometimes, Buls mentioned, people aren’t aware they need help or don’t believe they will qualify. For anyone looking for answers, please call (800) 779-8707. 

Even with the successful shift in the senior meals program and the information for those interested, there is a vital aspect missing with the new frozen meal delivery service, and that is the community connection. COVID has splintered social interactions and pushed those most in need further to the fringes. This is where the volunteers in the meals program provide a vital service beyond just delivering a meal. They remind senior citizens that they still matter, that they are still important, that they exist and deserve to be treated as valuable members of society.

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