When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the first two cases of COVID-19 in Michigan and declared a state of emergency on March 11, Lisa Wideman knew Meals on Wheels Western Michigan would be forced to adapt to a new reality.
“The very next day, it became very apparent that we were going to lose some key volunteer delivery groups,” said Wideman, COO at Meals on Wheels Western Michigan.
Normally, Meals on Wheels Western Michigan is powered by volunteers who transport food to more than 6,500 seniors each year. People who receive the meals are unable to leave their homes because of illness or physical mobility. Many of the reliable volunteers who transport food and much of the staff who keep Meals on Wheels running are also seniors.
Older adults and people who have serious underlying medical conditions may be at higher risk for more serious complications from the highly contagious COVID-19 virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“They’re afraid. Volunteers and our staff who are older, in many cases, decided to self-isolate,” Wideman said. “We’ve had to really pivot quite a bit.”
To accommodate the new conditions, Meals on Wheels began using the resources they still had to deliver extra “shelf-stable” meals to seniors, in case of further disruption in service. As well, drivers began dropping the meals off on porches instead of inside homes.
“It’s a very fine line because we’re really worried about passing the virus by continuing services, but we have seniors very, very afraid that they are not going to get their meals. We’re their security net,” Wideman said. “If we don’t deliver to them, it’s just going to create more fear in a population that is already compromised either physically or emotionally or financially. It’s really important that we stay the course as long as we possibly can for them.”
Meals on Wheels is just one of the many local nonprofit organizations that have had to rapidly transform operations in the wake of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. As more people move into self-isolation within their homes, organizations lose valuable human resources. At the same time, the volume of people who need help has skyrocketed alongside a total shutdown of schools, business closures and widespread unemployment.
In the first week after the state ordered all K-12 schools closed on March 16, Grand Rapids-based Kids’ Food Basket delivered 33,000 meals to children who are unable to get adequate nutritious food without the breakfasts and lunches served in school buildings.
“Strong access to healthy nourishing food is some of the most important work in the world — especially in a crisis,” Kids’ Food Basket CEO Bridget Clark Whitney told MiBiz.
The organization — which normally sends “sack suppers” home with students before they leave school each evening — serves children who attend schools where 70 percent or more of the student population receives free or reduced-cost lunch, an indicator of familial and regional poverty.
“As long as it’s safe and responsible to do so, we’re going to continue serving especially where the needs are greatest,” Whitney said. “We had had some preparation for this because last year, during the polar vortex, we served emergency meals. But this is very, very different. Not only do we need to reach as many children and families right now that are in need of access, but we also need to do that by taking extreme measures to mitigate risks and to protect the kids that we’re serving and our volunteers and our team.”
Kids’ Food Basket, which usually uses hundreds of volunteers per day to pack and organize food donations, has been forced to work with just 30 volunteers per week who are following strict distancing and safety protocols. The building is also cleaned multiple times a day, according to Whitney.
Meals are distributed three days a week at community and school sites in four counties, which change “by the hour,” Whitney said.
“Things are changing really quickly, and we don’t see this pandemic reducing the amount of people that need our services,” she said. “We see this pandemic only increasing the need for Kids’ Food Basket.”
The coronavirus crisis has brought together local nonprofits with missions around food security like never before, according to Wende Randall, director of the Kent County Essential Needs Taskforce.
“I’ve been really impressed,” Randall told MiBiz. “I really appreciate all the energy that people have been putting into their partnership.”
Organizations are banding together to share ideas, donations and information. They’re also asking one another for help when they need it.
“We have done a lot of work and relationship building behind the scenes in order to ensure that we have strong communication throughout these networks, and it’s really been visible now in the last week seeing everyone come together, provide updates regularly, offer up resources that they wouldn’t normally have to offer up,” she said. “Things like vehicles for delivery of meals or making different locations available for food drop-off sites — those types of things, people are really working collaboratively.”
Many food pantries and organizations have had to change the way they mobilize and utilize volunteers, just like Meals on Wheels and Kids’ Food Basket. The contagious nature of the virus and increased need for services have also forced organizations to change their intake processes, according to Randall.
“They’re easing up some of those requirements because we’re expecting that people who maybe normally wouldn’t need or wouldn’t use the food pantries are going to need to now,” she said. “Also (they’re trying) to reduce face-to-face time together, because some of those intake conversations can be 10 minutes or they can be an hour and a half. In order to ensure that we’re making the food pickup processes as quick and efficient as possible, we’re letting go of some of those processes now.”
‘Food is medicine’
Although organizations are still assessing their changing demands, donations like shelf-stable fruits and vegetables — such as apples and carrots — are needed by multiple food organizations, according to Randall.
“Those are things that people can receive multiple quantities of and they’re going to stay safe without refrigeration for a week or two weeks or three weeks,” she said.
Some organizations also have requested more canned goods.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are still a big part of the sack suppers that Kids’ Food Basket puts together for children, which are eaten within a day or two. The nutritional value of food has never been more important than now, according to Whitney.
“Because of the nature of this pandemic, food is even more critical — food is medicine,” she said. “Healthy food is critical for a strong immune system and when families are struggling to get healthy food resources, they are more susceptible to this virus and is affecting them in a worse way. If we are to work on our collective health, as a community, we must be intentional about serving and connecting with and caring for our most vulnerable citizens.”
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