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How Meals on Wheels expanded services to meet growing food needs

Tim Landes, Tulsa People

When Calvin Moore became president and CEO of Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa in 2014, there were less than 15 employees on staff to help orchestrate a meal delivery and wellness check program for Tulsa's elderly population.

Today, there are about 35 employees that up until six weeks ago relied on 2,300 volunteers to assist in delivery efforts.

When the COVID-19 pandemic reach Tulsa in May, everything changed for the nonprofit organization. The volunteer list is comprised of those considered a part of the vulnerable population, so they had to stop delivering as needs surged across the metro area.

As unemployment increased and people were asked to shelter in place, Meals on Wheels saw a need to assist more individuals beyond their normal operations, so they went to work and quickly expanded services to provide food for all ages in Tulsa and the communities surrounding the city.

That created a big workload for those 35.

"It's a ton of work and they've been doing yeoman's work," says Moore. "Every single person has just been so heroic. I can't be more proud of of their efforts and their attitudes towards coming in. They come in work on Saturdays, when they're not even asked to do that. They're in here prepping or doing early preparation on Sunday evenings for meal delivery. And everybody jumps in and volunteers and they know we have to get accomplished, and they do it willingly."

Moore participated in an April 29 phone interview to discuss how Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa has radically changed it's operations to meet the growing food needs across the area. His full interview can be heard on the May 6 episode of Tulsa Talks: A TulsaPeople Podcast.

You've been a real busy man. How has Meals on Wheels handled its response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Our general approach to the pandemic has been number one, concern and safety for all of our clients, all of our traditional clients, and all of our volunteers. And if you look at the average age of our volunteers, it's 69-70 years old. Many of our volunteers volunteer with Meals on Wheels almost as a second career, some volunteering 15-20, and even up to 30 years. So my goal initially and our goal as an organization was to say, we know that our volunteers are right in the middle of that vulnerable population and our seniors who serve represent vulnerable population. So we need to do whatever we can number one to keep them both safe and sound, but at the same time continue to deliver on our mission.

We do a lot of contingency planning around weather catastrophes, natural disasters, and so forth. We want to make sure that we can continue business operations throughout those unfortunate events because that's when our clientele needs us the most. That's when the community needs us to stand up the most.

When the pandemic erupted, we already knew that we had a very strong baseline for emergency operations, but we never imagined we would have to stand down our volunteer corps, which is substantial. Last year we used 2,300 volunteers to deliver on our mission of delivering nutritious meals, wellness and safety checks, which helps seniors to deal with the issues of isolation and depression and loneliness that living alone and at an advanced age can bring along.

One of the things we did was number one, repurpose that core 2,300 volunteers to say "You won't be going out making deliveries every single day, because that increases the number of opportunities for the virus to spread. We want you the volunteers to stay at home, but at the same time, we want you to repurpose your time and start making calls into the homes of clients that we are serving to make sure that you keep those wellness checks, those safety checks, and those socialization calls going."

That is so important, particularly in a time of social distancing and social isolation. You have to remember most of our clients were already socially isolated to begin with because many of them live alone at home and a lot of times a Meals on Wheels volunteer is the only person they will see in that given week. It helps volunteers as well to stay kind of socially connected, to stay on mission and to stay fulfilled as a human being knowing they're not just at home helpless, but they're still helping those people that they normally serve.

That's worked extremely well. We have about 400 volunteers now who are not making normal deliveries, but they are delivering on our mission of making those wellness checks from from their homes, and we get a report on all of those clients here in the central office. We use an online app called More Than A Meal. Basically, as they are making that phone call, they are denoting how that person is doing on their iPad or on their phone or on their handheld, what particular needs that person may have, whether or not that's a home repair, if there's an emergency, if there's a problem securing medication, if other things need to be sourced, like grocery shopping or doing the getting a yard cut. All of those things and those needs to go into that application and that gets uploaded to our central database.

So right here, we understand every day what the needs of our clients are and we go to work to meet those needs. And I think that's kind of an unsung and underreported aspect of what we do here at Meals on Wheels.

In addition to taking care of our senior clients, which is our bread and butter, we've also responded to the crisis by really stretching our mission, kind of expanding our scope a bit and responding to emerging needs in the community, in particular, helping those underserved communities around us, whether they be students, families, and so forth within our project service area who need additional food assistance. We have launched what we're calling our "Meals on Wheels Community Outreach Efforts." We're utilizing the churches throughout the communities and that's as far north as Owasso, as far south as Glenpool, east in Broken Arrow, Sand Springs and Sapulpa in the west. We just launched that service in Sapulpa a few months early because of the crisis and the needs that it created.

These new efforts for us represent just our attempt to step in and step beyond our traditional service platform to fill needs and fill gaps that were created by the COVID-19. We are delivering meals, bulk food items, to people in the Hispanic community. We started last week, serving Burmese congregations, who were really, really hard hit by the economic fallout from the shelter in place scenario, and then we'll be doing a lot more in North Tulsa starting this week.

Continuing Reading at Tulsa

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