Sasa Olessi Montaño, CEO, Meals on Wheels Mercer County.

Together, we can deliver!

There is no doubt that food insecurity is a reality in Mercer County every day. That in itself is a travesty. Food insecurity is not just about access to food, but it is also about the quality of the food and consistency of its availability.

Meals on Wheels of Mercer County is a comprehensive nutrition program that focuses on the homebound, mostly our elders, who cannot cook or shop for themselves: Older adults, who for the most part, are food insecure due to age, illness, and income.

The goal of our service model is to keep older adults in their homes for as long as possible, out of long term care situations, so they can maintain the ability to age with dignity in their most familiar of surroundings.

We accomplish this not just by delivering hot, healthy, therapeutic meals daily. Our “secret sauce” is the meal and the daily visit from a caring volunteer, a familiar face, who daily checks in to make sure they are thriving. Our goal is to keep the homebound healthy and happy.

But then along came Covid-19, the pandemic that daily threatens not only those we serve, but also those who serve them. I refer to our operations as a three-legged stool, the legs supporting every participant we serve.

But each leg over the last weeks, has not only been threatened by a wobble, but sometimes we wondered if we might make it through the day without one falling off, disrupting our delicate balance. And yet, we persist.

Meals on Wheels of Mercer County volunteers take meals to their cars during the early days of the pandemic. Now they remain in their cars while meals are brought to them by MOWMC staff. (Photo by Michael Mancuso.)

One leg is our staff, that continues to report daily, signing up new participants, fielding calls from them because they are frightened, anxious, or lonely, changing the way we do everything as often as the CDC has changed their guidelines. We are a mighty staff of 4
and a half, and I am so proud of them and their resilience under the most difficult of circumstances.

The second leg is our amazing partner and caterer: Rider University and Gourmet Dining. Their capacity to continue to produce meals is unmatched and they have committed to continue it undeterred, with back up staff and kitchens in waiting should they have an outbreak.

Their meal production continues to be healthy and therapeutic in nature. We are so grateful for the commitment of President Gregory Dell’Olmo and his entire staff to the Mercer County community; a true town-gown partnership!

And finally, our most precious resource, our volunteers. They are the heart of our organization. They represent leg of our operation that cannot wobble even one bit, and must remain strong and sturdy. We cannot deliver without them.

Before Covid-19, the average age of our volunteer was 65 and older. Think about it, who has time to deliver meals from 10 a.m. to noon?

By now you realize this age group is the major target group for Covid-19. And as reluctant as many were to step back, we encouraged them to do so, to keep them safe.

In their place we have recruited many new volunteers to replace our more seasoned ones. Husbands and wives who are not working, mothers with college age students home from school, single people looking to give back, so many of us looking to help others in this time when all of us are socially isolated.

The response has been heartening and overwhelming. But we still need more volunteers, as we do not know how long this will last. Within a week we totally transformed our face to face volunteer onboarding to a virtual one. And volunteers can schedule a shift for themselves!

Let me end by telling you about our participants. Individuals who were once like you and me; hard working, family loving, independent, and contributors to our communities. They are our  mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, great aunts and uncles.

They have arrived at the last years of their lives and simply cannot care for themselves anymore, not enough to be put in long term care, but just enough to need a little help to remain independent. And we are there for them.

Pre-Covid-19, over 60% lived alone and experienced social isolation. Now, the very nature of this pandemic is keeping families away from their older loved ones to keep them safe.

Who would have thought that their homes would be the safest place for them to be today? All of them are socially isolated, so if it is affecting us, imagine how hard it is on them.

It is also why we need you to help us! Please consider becoming a Meals on Wheels hero today.

Email us at info@mealsonwheelsmercer.org or call us at (609) 695-3483. Our elders are waiting for you! Together, we will deliver!

Sasa Olessi Montaño is the chief executive officer of Meals on Wheels Mercer County.