By Jennifer Hoegg
Friday mornings, there’s a bustling assembly line in the Valley Regional Hospital basement.
Cafeteria workers pass 32 hot meals to two volunteers who pack them on to trays, pack the trays into insulated bags and then hustle them out to the hands of four waiting drivers.
“It’s like the Amazing Race. They come up, they grab their bags and off they go,” Meals on Wheels co-ordinator Anna Spooner says.
Within two hours, the meals are in the hands of clients and the drivers return to hand off the dirty dishes from the previous meals for cleaning.
VON Annapolis Valley co-ordinates a Meals on Wheels program, which delivers hot meals to clients in Kings and eastern Annapolis counties. The same efficient handoffs take place three mornings a week in Kentville, as well as at the Kings Regional Rehabilitation Centre and Middleton’s Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital.
Demand for the service is high, Spooner said, and most of the sites are under capacity, but she can’t deliver more food.
“I can’t service more clients because I don’t have enough volunteers.”
Drivers are the biggest need, she added.
“I’ll be blunt: we need young people,” Spooner said. “Young people being under 60.
“The majority of our volunteers across the board have been with us for 20 to 25 years. They are now in their mid- to late-70s and a lot of the new volunteers I have had stepping up are already in their mid-70s.”
Bob Dobrota is one of her youngest volunteers. For the past year, the financial planner has spent part of his Friday mornings packing meals in the cafeteria – making sure each meal matches the dietary requirements of each client.
“I like to put my hands to work and help out for an hour or two,” Dobrota said, adding he likes to give back and help people get nutritious meals.
“I guess I’m more of doer than an organizer. It’s nice to get out of the office and enjoy the staff – the great staff we work with – and Linda is a great lady.”
Linda Hiscoe has been a Meals on Wheels volunteer since she retired in 2008. She said it’s a way to say “thank you” for the time when her late husband used VON services.
An aging group of volunteers is a problem Hiscoe is well aware of.
“We find as everyone gets older the older people are more interested in doing this volunteer work,” she said. “I see it in some of the organizations I’m involved in.”
Spooner isn’t turning away older volunteers, but she could use some younger bodies on the driving routes.
“The … program does require a certain amount of get up and go,” she said. “You’re in and out of the car, you’ve got to carry the meals up the house, find the houses and be comfortable with driving in communities. There is a certain level of ability necessary and we need younger people coming in.”
An aging population is one of the reasons demand for the program is increasing, Spooner said. Clients may be referred by the health care system, their families or may self-refer.
“There are people who realize they need to eat better, they need to eat more but they are not motivated because of depression or because of other health issues,” she said.
“With the employment situation in Nova Scotia and the Valley in particular, extended families may be moving away,” Spooner added. “Maybe they can’t be around to make sure their parent is eating properly or is getting groceries so they will contact us.”
Once a client contacts VON, Spooner will evaluate whether there is room in the program, what route the house would be on and whether the home is accessible and safe for volunteer drivers.
Another challenge is whether the client can pay the $6 per meal.
“I have had people cancel because they cannot afford it,” Spooner said. “We don’t currently have a subsidization program within the VON. It’s a tricky thing to subsidize and there is no government subsidy to individuals at this time that we know of.”
VON is exploring whether there are more affordable ways to run the program.
“We’re one of the few (programs) that deliver as many hot meals as we do,” she said, with many other programs turning to frozen or chilled meals.
“Food is expensive and it’s only going up in price,” Spooner said. “And preparation costs money.”
In addition to managing the “speed bumps” of the day-to-day needs of the program, Spooner is trying to plan for Meals on Wheels’ future. The local program’s challenges are not unique, she pointed out.
“Wherever in the world they have Meals on Wheels programs, they are battling the problems of aging volunteer demographic and how to get the food to people.”
Spooner is hoping greater co-ordination might be possible between the VON program and those in Annapolis County and Wolfville to better serve the Valley region.
She is seeking input from current volunteers on how the program can be improved
“They often see things, weaknesses, or get feedback from the clients I might not get.
“We’re open to ideas. Anyone who wants to come and help us out with this sort of brainstorming” is welcome.
Anyone interested in helping Meals on Wheels may contact Spooner at 678-1733 or Anna.Spooner@von.ca.