When Wright County Community Action started a program
to give senior citizens frozen meals to eat healthier, COVID-19 had yet to
dominate our daily lives. It was a program that WCCA Executive Director Jay
Weatherford realized was a need and WCCA wanted to fill that void.
The program, which is available to Wright County
residents 60 and older, started small but has grown exponentially over the past
“The program was around for about a month before the pandemic
forced people to stay home,” Weatherford said. “What we recognized was that seniors
in their 80s and 90s are trying to stay in their homes and they were eating a
ham sandwich or soup for many of their meals. Even those who could afford it
weren’t eating healthy. What we decided to do was start a frozen meal program
so they could eat healthier meals. We thought if we could get a frozen meal
program in place to help those seniors, they could stay at home longer.”
The numbers for the program have spiked this week as
more residents are applying to be included. On Monday, with the invaluable help
of Trailblazer Transit, the WCCA was able to deliver 550 meals. That number
grew to 750 on Tuesday, 1,060 on Wednesday and 1,285 on Thursday. Today (April
10) 795 meals were delivered. Why was the number down? They ran out of food and
hope to reload over the weekend to start back in earnest on Monday.
The reasons for the dramatic increase are that more
people are applying as well as WCCA giving seniors more than one meal when they
drop them off.
“We’re giving people multiple meals at a time so they
can put in them in their freezer,” Weatherford said. “We’re not making daily
trips to each person. We’re making trips where we give them 10 meals at a time so
they will last for a while.”
There is no income requirement to be included, but all
new applicants must fill out a form, which can be done online at the WCCA
website by clicking on the “Senior Mobile Food Shelf” link under Nutrition on
the homepage and then clicking on the “Senior Frozen Meal App” button to access
the application form.
The program has grown faster than Weatherford
anticipated, but much of that can be attributed to COVID-19. The biggest toll
in lives lost to the coronavirus have been the elderly and those with health
conditions, prompting more to stay home be part of the frozen meals program.
“Back on March 30, we had 159 applications for this
program,” Weatherford said. “Today we have 616. We’re working on a home-based
call center to get through these applications as quickly as we can. We probably
did 80 yesterday alone.”
Weatherford isn’t sure if there is a limit to the
number of people who can be served by the program. While they’re currently accepting
all twho meet the program requirements, but if it grows much larger, there is
the potential that the program will fill to its limits.
“Capacity could be an issue at some point, but we don’t
know yet,” Weatherford said. “Right now, there isn’t a capacity, but it just depends
on the numbers. I have 616 applications completed as of yesterday. I have
another 150 people that we’re trying to get back to. The number keeps growing,
but so far we’re keeping up.”
The issue Weatherford and WCCA is facing is the
funding tree that goes from the federal level to the state level to the local
level. The meals that are being distributed are being made by Catholic
Charities. It gets its funding from the Central Minnesota Council on Aging. The
CMCA gets its funding from the Minnesota Board on Aging. The MBA gets much of
its current funding from the federal government.
The program has mobilized to address its rapid growth.
Catholic Charities has seven kitchens that prepare the meals. WCCA is working
with J&B Group of St. Michael, which is providing floor space in its freezer
warehouse because they are buying food in bulk (numerous palates of food) to provide
as many meals as possible. They currently have distribution sites in Waverly,
Delano and Buffalo and are working on opening distribution sites in St.
Michael, Monticello and Annandale.
The program needs money to continue the program and
Weatherford is frustrated that it is getting stuck in channels.
“My biggest concern is that funding is going to get
slowed down from the Central Minnesota Council on Aging through the state Board
on Aging up to the federal government,” Weatherford said. “The feds have
released the money to fund this as far as I know. The Board on Aging needs to
get the message that the money needs to go the Central Minnesota Council on
Aging to get it to Catholic Charities so this level of volume can be funded.”
The growth of the project has become more critical
because the Meals on Wheels hot meal program in Wright County has been
suspended during the “stay at home” protocol from the state and the frozen
meals program has dovetailed off what Meals on Wheels would typically do.
“This is playing off of the Meals on Wheels concept,”
Weatherford said. “The Meals on Wheels folks had
to quit doing the hot meals and going door to door – at least in my part of the county.
What we’re doing is piggybacking on what Meals on Wheels did and we’re giving
people 10 frozen meals to last them a couple of weeks. We agreed to distribute
the meals from Catholic Charities. But, when we started this, there wasn’t a
pandemic. Now things have changed.”
Weatherford piloted the program by making deliveries to
three assisted living facilities located in Delano, Maple Lake and Montrose. It
was an unqualified success, which led to the expansion because Catholic
Charities was able to supply the demand.
“That pilot project worked out really well, so we
asked Catholic Charities, ‘How many meals can you give us because we have a
pandemic going on,’” Weatherford said. “They said they could give us up to 60
meals per person per application. Now I’ve got 616 applications and they’re
starting to get concerned as to whether they’re going to have enough money to
keep the program going at the current level or higher.”
To what extent the frozen meal program can continue
operating at the pace displayed this week – 4,440 meals delivered in five days –
is uncertain. Weatherford is keeping his fingers crossed that the federal
relief funding will help sustain the program, because he knows firsthand how
much benefit it is providing for those who need it most.
“These seniors need help, especially now with the
pandemic on us,” Weatherford said. “We’re going to keep doing this until we don’t
have funding for it because the numbers tell us that the need is there.”