It looked a lot like Thanksgiving Day on Thursday morning at San Antonio’s Meals on Wheels headquarters.
Workers and volunteers directed a steady stream of cars off Babcock Road and into a drive-thru lane where cars, trucks, and vans were loaded with prepared meals for homebound seniors across the city.
While the team was deploying the strategies of its annual holiday meal distribution system, the organization that daily feeds 3,000 clients in San Antonio has gone into emergency overdrive during the current coronavirus pandemic to ensure those who rely on food deliveries are not forgotten.
Rather than distribute food to its 47 pickup points – such as churches and community centers – as it normally does, the Meals on Wheels organization last week centralized its distribution of meals to its headquarters located on the Northwest Side.
“This is so different from what we normally do,” said Vinsen Faris, CEO of Meals on Wheels San Antonio. “Because we were losing so many corporate team volunteers … [and] a lot of the pickup points closed down, we pulled all of the meals back so they can be picked up from here.”
Meals on Wheels also revised its delivery schedule from five hot meals a week to only two chilled meals plus packs of supplemental shelf-stable foods.
That change takes the load off its kitchen, Faris said, but also helps stock their clients’ refrigerators and pantries ahead of any possible disruption in service that could occur during a disaster. It’s also meant to bolster a client’s health in case they get sick.
But that preparedness comes at a cost.
“We had planned for our first 13,000 [shelf-stable meals] and we were supposed to have enough for the second 13,000 here to be packed already,” Faris said. “[But] we’re still waiting on product,” which includes the supplies currently being redirected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The weekly cost of providing the additional food Meals on Wheels began delivering its clients two weeks ago comes to $50,000, said Forrest Myane, chief development officer at Meals on Wheels.
On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott said Texas had received a $16.2 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Community Living to help provide meals for older adults. However, Faris isn’t counting on that.
“Our focus is on the clients right now – the community is responding,” Faris said. “Valero stepped up in a huge way with a $200,000 gift and that will be super if some of that federal money gets to us, but right now our focus is [on the clients].”
Along with volunteers from the Valero workforce, WellMed Healthcare, and County constables, two of the drivers who showed up to deliver meals Thursday were members of the veteran-led disaster response group, Team Rubicon.
Patrick Smith, a Marine Corps veteran, and Veronica Solis, a military widow, saw there was a need for help and started delivering meals last week, they said. During that time, they have carried food to 325 Meals on Wheels clients.
For people like 60-year-old Macrina Renk, a West Side resident who suffers from arthritis and uses a walker, the meal of chicken tacos, rice, and beans she received on Thursday stretches her limited income
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It also allows her to remain at home where she is less likely to be exposed to the novel coronavirus that has been especially lethal in the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
On the days Renk is not receiving a meal delivery, she receives a phone call. With the aid of staffers from Grace Place, an activity care center for people with Alzheimer’s disease, Meals on Wheels is daily calling all of its clients to check on their well-being.
While some seniors have family and friends to check on them, said Ariana Barbour, communications and marketing director for Meals on Wheels, it’s hard to know who among their clients needs additional support during a public health crisis.
“For those we serve, our meal deliveries are the constant in their lives during good times and bad,” Barbour said. “We were here for them before COVID-19, we are here for them now, and we’ll be there for them when this is all over.”