Most things shut down at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eastside Meals on Wheels got busier. “We saw 40 years of growth overnight,” Executive Director Jessie Hausman said recently. Even with volunteers dropping out of sight because of stay-at-home orders, the organization, which turns 50 in 2023, somehow managed to deliver 45,000 meals to housebound seniors in 2021.
That’s quite a jump from the years 2012 to 2020, when they averaged 25,000 meals a year.
Headquartered at Waite Park Wesleyan Church, 1510 33rd Avenue NE, Eastside Meals on Wheels has a history of adaptation.
The food distribution network got its start in the 1950s in Philadelphia, when social worker Margaret Toy recruited volunteer “Platter Angels,” according to a 2012 Northeaster article. The idea came to Minneapolis in the early 1950s when Oscar Howard, a caterer, started delivering meals in North Minneapolis. He later registered the name, Meals on Wheels, with the Minnesota Secretary of State, but stopped delivering meals. The idea was picked up by two churches in Bloomington. It spread to Richfield, Hopkins, Minnetonka and St. Louis Park, then Crystal, Robbinsdale, Golden Valley, New Hope and Brooklyn Center.
In 1973, the Dinner Bell program started in Northeast. A van would pick up meals at Metropolitan Medical Center and deliver the meals to the Trinity United Methodist parking lot where volunteers picked them up. The program stayed and grew at Trinity, 2511 Taylor Street NE, piloted by Eileen Hafften, who served as executive director for 18 years.
Volunteers went out in all kinds of weather, delivering hot meals to people who had a hard time cooking or even getting out to shop for food. As they drove their routes, they made friends along the way. “Drivers are aware that sometimes they are the only human contact a person will have in a day or a week and that they are checking to make sure an elderly frail person is still okay,” Margo Ashmore wrote in 2012.
Recipients found willing ears for tales from World War II, the Great Depression and other events. Stan Sroga said, “Anyone who thinks they have been shortchanged in life, should drive for Dinner Bell. When you see other people’s lives you go home thankful for what you’ve got. People are so thankful, too.”
In 2010, Trinity UMC merged with Grace United Methodist. Church activities moved to Grace’s building on Cleveland Street. The new Northeast United Methodist Church put the Trinity building up for sale, and the Dinner Bell joined forces with the Southeast Delivered Meals program, serviced by the University Health Care Center. The program was renamed Eastside Meals on Wheels, and relocated to Catholic Eldercare at 817 Main Street NE in 2012. They moved again, to Waite Park Wesleyan in 2014.
Last year, Eastside Meals on Wheels served more than 260 people 60 years old and up in Northeast, St. Anthony and the University area, bringing them meals five days a week and averaging 178 meals per day. Meals are delivered from 11:15-12:15 Monday-Friday. A typical route includes five to ten stops.
What does a Meals on Wheels meal look like? Clients receive an “Oliver tray,” which is partitioned like a TV dinner and contains protein and vegetables. It’s accompanied by a brown bag filled with fruit, dessert, milk, bread and butter. Most meals range in calories from 700 to 800 and provide one-third of the dietary requirements of adults 60 years of age or older, because many seniors tend to eat their big meal of the day at noon. A licensed dietitian plans a monthly menu. Dietary restrictions such as diabetic, gluten free, halal, lactose free, no added salt, and renal can be accommodated. Food allergies and religious food restrictions can also be taken into consideration. For example, some folks choose not to eat pork and others choose to receive fish every Friday.
The meals are catered by Trio Community Meals in Eagan, which delivers the meals to Eastside Meals on Wheels the night before. In the morning, the staff puts them in a steam oven and assembles the bags. Then 14 volunteers pick them up and fan out across the area to deliver them.
“We encourage people to get hot meals daily,” said Hausman, although some prefer to receive them frozen for reheating later.
To qualify for Meals on Wheels, clients have to be 60 years old or older and can’t leave home to shop for food, or have trouble preparing it. If you or someone you know lives in the 55413, 55414 or 55418 ZIP codes, you can order meals. Hausman encourages families to sign their elders up – “If you think they’re having problems, don’t wait.”
Meals on Wheels can also furnish meals to anyone 50 or older if they are homebound after hospitalization. “If they are younger than that, unfortunately, we can’t offer low to no-cost meals. The ‘full’ price per meal is $8.06,” said Hausman. Clients younger than 50 usually receive services through a waiver or community alternative care program such as medical assistance.
Clients receive the meals free of charge, thanks to funding from the federal government – which is never certain (the Older Americans Act has been reauthorized by Congress several times since 1965) or enough – and donations. “Donors help us make up the difference,” said Hausman.
So do volunteer drivers. Eastside has a list of 200 volunteers, but needs more help. Said Hausman, “The labor crisis has hit us, too. It’s not just restaurants and retail stores. We really need drivers.”
Volunteers also help out with a “telecare” program. Once a month, they call clients to see how they’re doing, if they need additional help with leaf raking, snow shoveling or other chores, or just need someone to talk to.
With Thanksgiving just days away, Eastside will deliver frozen meals that clients can heat up when the office is closed Nov. 24 and 25. They will also deliver nonperishable food items clients can store and use should a snow storm prevent drivers from making their rounds. And they’ll put a little “something extra” into the bags during the holidays.
Hausman keeps a quote on her desk from one of the volunteers: “What we do is more than money. It helps. It really helps.”
To volunteer, call Brad Van Winkle at 612-277-2529, or fill out an application from www.eastsidemeals.org. You’ll be asked to provide your driver’s license and insurance card, and Eastside will conduct a “light” background check.
To donate, visit eastsidemeals.org, or send a check to Eastside Meals on Wheels, 1510 33rd Ave. NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418.
Below: Eileen Hafften served as Eastside Meals on Wheels executive director for 18 years. (Northeaster file photo by Margo Ashmore)