Michigan's Meals on Wheels programs adapt to surging demand and new safety protocols during pandemic

Urgent pandemic-era changes have affected Meals on Wheels programs in differing ways, and each one has come up with unique strategies to rise to the challenge.

This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.


When COVID-19 stay-home orders were issued, Michigan’s Meals on Wheels programs found themselves facing the same three crucial issues: How could they continue providing much-needed meals to their clients? How could they continue providing critical wellness checks for their clients? And how would they accommodate the many new requests they were receiving for service?

Volunteers at Senior Services Southwest Michigan prepare meals for delivery.

These urgent pandemic-era questions have affected Meals on Wheels programs in differing ways, and each one has come up with unique strategies to rise to the challenge. The Detroit Area Agency on Agency (DAAA)'s Meals on Wheels program in Detroit had to make a major shift to safely provide services to existing clients and a massive surge of new clients requesting meals as a result of the pandemic.


“We recognize that our population needed to social-distance more than other populations,” says Ronald Taylor, DAAA president and CEO. “We wanted to develop processes and methods that would allow them to properly social-distance so we could deliver their meals in a safe manner.”


Before COVID, DAAA delivered 3,000 meals per day to clients' homes, with 65% of those being frozen meals. It also offered a congregate meal program where 470-500 seniors per week would eat daily hot meals together at 23 churches, recreation centers, or senior centers.


To reduce the amount of contact drivers had with clients, DAAA’s home-delivery program began delivering only frozen meals not only to its existing clients but an additional 1,800 who signed up after the pandemic hit. Congregate programs transformed into curbside pickups providing each client with five frozen meals every Wednesday. By mid-June, the number of folks involved in that program doubled to more than 1,000.


“The numbers have really shown the need that was probably out there to begin with. Now, they’ve reached out to us,” says Gilberto Lopez, DAAA's nutrition director.


Through mid-June, DAAA also leveraged resources from Project Isaiah to provide meals to an additional 1,400 people per week and to coordinate delivery of protein boxes to provide enough food to prepare 20 meals to another 7,000 individuals.


DAAA has also been in conversations with Food Rescue US-Detroit to see how it can support Detroit’s Meals on Wheels program. An app-based food rescue that directly connects donors with agencies, Food Rescue US has only been serving the Detroit area for about a year. Food Rescue US began supplying Oakland County Meals on Wheels programs a great deal more food after stay-home orders were issued.


“A lot of produce companies that had a huge inventory left over reached out to us. That’s when we started looking at which agencies we could share that with,” says Food Rescue US' Detroit site director, Darraugh Collins. “Meals on Wheels sent trucks to pick up the produce and make it into meals for the seniors.”


In total, Food Rescue US shared more than 9,000 pounds of food with its new Meals on Wheels clients, including 64,000 plant-based burger patties and 100,000 pounds of chicken.


College students fill gap in Southwest Michigan


Like Detroit, Senior Services Southwest Michigan's Meals on Wheels program also had an increase in requests for meals from residents of Allegan, Calhoun, and Kalamazoo counties. Three additional delivery routes were added to keep up with demand. Except for the fresh produce grown in the agency's own greenhouse, its programs directly purchase all food used to prepare made-from-scratch meals. Senior Services’ own chefs and kitchen staff plan and prepare hot, cold, and frozen meals for delivery to clients' homes every Monday through Friday.


“The chef and staff get to the kitchen by 4 a.m. and the meals go out around 10:30 or 11:00,” says Abigail Finn, nutrition programs manager for Senior Services Southwest Michigan. “Right away we had to start pre-screening all staff and volunteers [for COVID-19] before shifts. During the pandemic, we were still able to get pretty much everything for our meals, so our menus have pretty much stayed the same.”
Abigail Finn, nutrition programs manager for Senior Services Southwest Michigan.

The biggest challenge Finn had to navigate was the loss of older volunteers who opted to stay home and stay safe. So she recruited students from Western Michigan University as well as teachers from closed schools.


“A lot of the students that I’ve talked to didn’t really realize that Meals on Wheels is more than food assistance for seniors who are homebound. The students really realize how much of a live safety net they offer to people,” Finn says. “The seniors really enjoy the young faces coming to greet them. They make their days brighter, especially with as lonely as everyone’s been.”


Instead of bringing meals into the homes, the volunteers leave them near the door and call out to the client, wave to them, or call them on the phone to make sure they are doing well.

Marcia Hutchins and Jim Geerligs check a delivery list for Senior Services Southwest Michigan.

“The biggest change has to do with contact with clients. We need to still be able to check on them, have verbal or visual contact with them,” Finn says. “If we don’t, we don’t leave the food behind and reach out to their emergency contact or order a welfare check to make sure we're not leaving anybody stranded needing help.”


Help and high water


For Senior Services of Midland County, challenges were further exacerbated by a historic flood in May that put even more people at risk for food insecurity. The agency's Meals on Wheels program has been serving 2,500 to 3,800 meals a week.


“When things first started, it was like, ‘Oh my God! What are we going to do?’ It was a very stressful time,” says Megan Geierman, nutrition program director for Senior Services of Midland County.


Pre-pandemic, Senior Services of Midland County not only delivered meals to clients’ homes but also served meals at its adult day program and congregate meal sites. When COVID-19 stay-home orders were initially issued, all programs ceased operation and staff delivered a one-time supply of shelf-stable foods to all clients. In place of wellness checks, staff called every client once or twice a week. If they could not reach a client, they visited the client's home to make sure they were well.


“When they closed the schools down, we knew we had to close adult day and congregate meals. A week later, it was the stay-at-home order and we had to close everything down,” Geierman says. “We have adapted our Meals on Wheels program all along in that sequence of events.”


As operations slowly ramped up, most of the agency's older volunteers opted to continue delivering meals to homebound clients using safe social distancing practices. Congregate meals, which had taken place five days a week, were replaced by three curbside pickups of frozen meals per week.


“Councils on aging are often the last place people think of when they should be the first – not just for meals, but everything they do for people, their caregivers, and others,” says Charlie Schwedler, executive director of Senior Services of Midland County.


Across Michigan, the pandemic has proven an old maxim about Meals on Wheels programs.


“One of the running jokes is ‘Once you’ve seen one meals program, you’ve seen one meals program,” Lopez says. “We all do the same thing but get there a different way.”


A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media, communications manager for Our Kitchen Table, and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.


Photos by Susan Andress.