Grand Traverse Insider

More than a Meal

Published: Monday, July 23, 2012
Contributing Writer
Popular program looks to communities it serves for support

Head Cook Tom Harrington and assistant Wade Elliot package a few of the 400 meals they prepare each day at the Goodwill Inn kitchen. Photo by Jeff Kessler

Bob Wilson is the Meals on Wheels driver twice a week for client Doris McCloskey. Photo by Jeff Kessler

NORTHERN MICHIGAN – A mechanic once referred to parts on an engine as “primary and not.” The primary parts were essential to keep the engine running, while others were obviously not as necessary.

This mechanic often found himself explaining why it was more costly to replace primary parts to his customers. He said, “Most people don’t realize how important the primary parts are. They hardly ever think of them, but if just one of them stops working or breaks, the whole engine quits or it causes major damage to other parts.”

According to its clients, the Meals on Wheels program operates as a smooth-running machine in the northern Michigan area – thanks to its volunteers, support staff and administration. They would like to keep it that way, but the engine is due for an update.

The Meals on Wheels statistics speak volumes.

Consider preparing and distributing close to 260,000 nutritious meals to more than 3,700 senior citizens a year in a five-county region of coverage throughout Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Manistee, Wexford and Missaukee counties (2011 Meals on Wheels figures). Realize that as government funding has stayed about the same, food and transportation costs have increased while program participation has risen 20 percent in the last four years.

Next, look down the road at the “baby boomer” generation that has only begun to tap the program’s services. Already, one in seven seniors faces hunger-related anxiety and challenges.

“It is a challenging combination of conditions we face,” said program manager, Lisa Robitshek.

“We are very fortunate to have an incredible team of people here who love what they do, and none of us ever want to see a waiting list for our future clients. When we get a new call today from someone who really needs us, I want that person sticking a fork in a nutritious meal tomorrow.”

Trends of costs and services are challenging Robitshek’s admirable goals. In support, her organization believes it is time to shine a light on the services it provides for the communities it reaches, and look to the future for renewed community sustainability.

The reality of economic pressures and changing demographics are causing its operations body, the nonprofit Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency (NMCAA), to look hard at the immediate and long-term future of Meals on Wheels, and take proactive steps.

“Helping People. Changing Lives.” is more than the agency’s slogan. Now, and in the future, it is their driving force.

Wise investment

Recent health care industry surveys cite an 85 percent preference by senior citizens to live in their own homes. A most significant factor in making that happen is a nutritious meal. Without the meal, very often, options are limited to life in some type of assisted care facility.

A direct, fiscal correlation can be drawn between the societal costs of a meal program delivered to a home versus the cost of care for golden agers in a facility.

But then, there is the real value. The Meals on Wheels people involved with its preparation, distribution and consumption refuse to let the spirit of the program to be trumped by facts and figures. Their voices of care, cooperation, appreciation and – most importantly – independence describe a unique network of service and sense.

Bob Wilson is from Traverse City and estimates he has been volunteering for Meals on Wheels over 12 years.

“So many of these folks are by themselves,” Wilson said. “For them, we deliver more than food; there’s compassion and companionship that is another kind of nourishment. It shows (that) someone outside their family cares for them.

“It’s especially important when families are spread out. It reminds me of a culture when I grew up where people looked out for each other. Without Meals on Wheels, I don’t know who would pick up the slack, and I know where people would end up; they fear the facility.”

Craig Holmes is a relatively new driver, and has had his eyes opened to the multi-dimensional nature of the program. He picked up on Wilson’s companionship comments.

“There is a real need here for the companionship that our clients feel,” said Holmes. “We are welcomed into their lives. We are a safety check as well. This is a segment of the population that is often overlooked, and the program has become such a staple for many that I think it is taken for granted.”

Robitshek agreed.

“For our 100 drivers, the value of Meals on Wheels has definitely grown beyond food delivery,” she stated.

“They see the depression, isolation and loneliness out there, and they help fill that void. It’s even more prevalent now that so many families are out of town and seniors are just living longer. We are but one member of a team that helps people stay in their homes. It is a core objective for us.”

Shared blessing

Doris McCloskey is a Meals on Wheels client.

“I can’t say how wonderful it is,” she said. “I just don’t have to worry about food and can stay home. If this were gone, those who can’t leave their home would suffer. It would put pressure on families, and folks would just end up in care places.”

“The drivers are very concerned about us, and when you are alone, to have them stop and talk for a few minutes is very valuable. Too many people think this is a program of welfare, but that is not the case. It is here for people who physically have a need, period,” McCloskey stated.

None of these comments or sentiment surprised Meals on Wheels Head Cook Tom Harrington as he prepared the 400 meals for the day in the early morning hours at the Goodwill Inn kitchen. (All together, cooks in three kitchens prepare meals for clients in five counties.)

On any given day, he normally arrives before 5 a.m. With a long history in commercial kitchens, Harrington said, “This is a job I can see retiring from. It just has so much more value. Our people are all family oriented. We all know what we are doing helps people stay in their homes.

“We all rise and fall together for this cause. There is a great deal of pride felt by everyone associated with the program. (But you) can’t deny the challenges. We are constantly researching food sources for quality and costs. I love all of our folks.”

Harrington confessed to carrying a thank you note from one of the clients in his wallet. The Meals on Wheels net is there. It is strong because of drivers on one end providing companionship, knowledgeable staff spending time assessing needs, food preparers who know the needs of clients (including birthday cakes), and administrators looking out for its future. The reality is that it is strong but strained.

In 1970, the singer Joni Mitchell sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?” Meals on Wheels is here and will remain (just like the classic Mitchell tune).

NMCAA is looking to its communities and families for support that will allow it to strengthen its programs while offering an opportunity to assure its strong future, appreciation for its team of providers and an investment in compassion for its seniors’ desire to stay in their own homes.