Local Meals on Wheels sees nearly 45% increase in need

Thanks to the CARES Act funding, the organization has been able to keep up. But that cash will run out at the end of the year.

A Meals on Wheels volunteer appreciation event.

Courtesy of Jessie Hausman

A Meals on Wheels volunteer appreciation event.

Lydia Morrell, City Reporter

When Andrew Whitman is not on Zoom teaching University of Minnesota students the ins and outs of corporate risk management, he spends his time delivering meals and playing the harmonica for participants in the Meals on Wheels program.

Whitman is one of many volunteers who has stepped up to deliver meals to an increasing number of participants in the Eastside Meals on Wheels program.

The number of people requesting food has risen by nearly 45% since the beginning of the pandemic and is continuing to grow as COVID-19 cases climb and more people face difficulties leaving the house. The organization has responded by offering up to 21 meals a week per person rather than the seven meals per week offered before.

“We are growing, and we want to give the folks that are our clients everything that we can, especially right now when social contact is challenging and … it’s hard to get out to supermarkets,” said program director Jessie Hausman.

The program typically reaches older adults in most parts of northeast and southeast Minneapolis who struggle to get out of the house. But as CARES Act pandemic relief funds have flowed into the organization, Eastside Meals on Wheels has expanded its reach to any adult who is struggling with food insecurity or has difficulty leaving the house.

The CARES Act funding will cease at the end of the year.

“I am concerned for that transition,” Hausman said. “But I feel glad that we are able to serve as many people as possible now.”

The qualifications to receive meals will change once the organization can no longer support “unlimited” meals for people who are facing food insecurity.

“It will return to what is typical, which is like, if they’re 60 or older and they struggle to get out, they for sure will be on the list,” Hausman said. “But if not, it might be a waiting process. … We’ll have to look at our funds and see what we can provide.”

Hausman added that the organization will have to rely heavily on fundraising campaigns in 2021.

The volunteer base has grown in response to the increased need, thanks to people from local churches and those with extra time because of pandemic-related cancellations, Hausman said. She said volunteers have longer routes and more food to carry, but a lot of young people came forward to help after the pandemic hit, so the group has not struggled under the sudden influx of more participants.

Alexandra Fuher, a fourth-year medical student at the University, was taken off of her in-person clinical rotations in March. With extra time on her hands, she started delivering meals on a route near her neighborhood.

“It’s just a quick and easy way to give back to my community,” Fuher said. “I mean, it’s so close to where I live, and it’s somebody’s food. So it’s obviously incredibly important that somebody has access to that.”

Before the pandemic, volunteers would deliver five days a week and often visit with participants. Now they deliver three days a week while minimizing contact with other volunteers and participants.

Whitman, the harmonica-playing University professor, said one of the participants on his route used to invite him inside his house to show off his annual Christmas display with village houses and train stations wrapping around the living room. Whitman cannot go in the house anymore, but he still makes conversation from afar.

“Every time I go there now, I say, ‘I can’t wait for the day when you can again show me all of your villages,’” Whitman said.