McFeely: Looking for good news? Meals on Wheels delivers some

Senior program continues to provide meals to vulnerable population during coronavirus pandemic

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Meals on Wheels volunteer Jay Nelson delivers lunch to the home of a south Fargo senior citizen on April 14. Mike McFeely / The Forum

Jay Nelson has delivered Meals on Wheels for more than 15 years, dropping off meals to homes in a south Fargo neighborhood. The stops on his route have changed, of course, but they usually remain the same long enough for Jay to get to know a little something about the recipients.

One of his stops is at a war hero's home. Another is the home of a man who is a music aficionado. There is a woman who worked on bombers during World War II. Most of the recipients are elderly, some are not, but they all have a name and a life story.

"Doing this is the best hour of my week," a smiling Nelson said Tuesday morning at Olivet Lutheran Church on the corner of 13th Avenue South and University Drive as he picked up 10 meals to be delivered.

You want some good news in the midst of the topsy-turvy, uncertain world we've been left with because of the coronavirus pandemic? Look no further than Meals on Wheels.


While there have been pandemic-fueled challenges, the program that delivers nutritious meals to the homes of seniors continues to chug along. And if during this time of social distancing there aren't the long conversations and hugs there once were, there are still words, waves and smiling faces for a few moments each day.

Feeling sorry for yourself because you're stuck at home? Some who receive Meals on Wheels are always stuck at home because of age, lack of transportation, mobility issues or other reasons. Isolation is nothing new for them.

"Of the 500 or so people who receive meals, about 70% are single. They are widows, widowers, or have never married. A lot of those people live alone and they simply don't get out or they don't have friends or family who regularly visit. So the volunteers who deliver their meals might be the only human contact they have all day. Aside from getting a nutritious meal, that is an important aspect for many of these people," said Brian Arett, director of the Valley Senior Services program that administers Meals on Wheels for Fargo and West Fargo.

I tagged along with Nelson on his half-hour route to see how Meals on Wheels was handling the new reality. Verdict: As well as could be expected. Nelson picked up his meals at Olivet and hit the road to a seasoned neighborhood west of University and north of 13th Avenue filled with modest single-family homes.

Because of precautions taken in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Nelson would most often leave the meal — on this day, chicken cordon bleu with scalloped potatoes and carrots, plus a hot-cross bun and a slice of cheesecake — on the front steps, a bench, or a chair. Then he'd rap on the door or ring the doorbell before taking a few steps back.

Usually within a few moments, the front door would open or a face would appear in the window.

"Your meal is here," Nelson would call out. "Are you doing OK? Is everything all right?"


The answer was always affirmative and was most often accompanied by a smile and a wave. In a couple of cases, Nelson made a phone call to inside the home and waited for an answer before going to the next stop.


"We've had to change the protocol because of what's going on and that's hard," Nelson said. "It's nice to be able to have a face-to-face conversation, a handshake and maybe a hug when you're doing this. We can't have any physical contact and we have to keep our distance. That's for their safety, of course, but it's different. So many of these people have so much gratitude to see a person and be able to visit a little bit."
Arett said it was challenging to get the program "re-tooled" quickly when coronavirus guidelines took effect. Scaling back interaction was the top priority because most Meals on Wheels clients are among the most vulnerable to the virus. But the program saw a drastic drop in volunteers, too, mainly because most were themselves senior citizens who didn't want to risk exposure.

Volunteer numbers dropped about 100, down to 200, almost immediately.

"When word got out that we needed help, we had an incredible response. We had over 100 new volunteers step up. New people stepped in and made sure that all of our routes were filled every day," Arett said. "It was off the charts. It underscores the caring nature of our community, no doubt, but there are also people not working right now who were willing to volunteer and there are businesses offering their employees as volunteers. Just incredible.

"We might have more volunteers now than we had before. If we are short of volunteers on a certain day and need to fill a route, I'd ask one of my staff to fill in. That isn't happening. One of them just said the other day, 'I miss delivering Meals on Wheels. I never get to do it anymore.' "

A slice of good news in a world awash in the opposite.


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Meals on Wheels volunteer Jay Nelson waits outside a south Fargo home to deliver lunch to a senior citizen on Tuesday, April 14. Mike McFeely / The Forum

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Meals on Wheels volunteer Jay Nelson waits outside a south Fargo home to deliver lunch to a senior citizen on Tuesday, April 14. Mike McFeely / The Forum

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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