Charlotte Dehut accepts a delivery from Meals on Wheels volunteer Charles Schaer on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem's Meals on Wheels added hundreds of clients during the Covid pandemic as public gathering places closed, and the City's seniors and disabled adults retreated indoors to avoid exposure to the virus. Based in the Center 50+ building, the Marion Polk Food Share program took advantage of that newly dormant space to ramp up its capacity to serve the added population. 

Now, as people recover and vaccines reduce the threat of serious illness, the Center is coming alive again as its staff and members return. Mel Fuller, the Meals on Wheels director, is looking for spaces around town to use as remote distribution hubs. She hopes to maintain current service levels, build capacity to expand even more and ease the delivery process for her drivers.

"We can maintain the food prep service in the Center 50+ kitchen," Fuller said, "but I want to shift part of the distribution aspect out into the community."

Pre-Covid, Meals on Wheels was serving about 450 elders daily, making and packing the meals in the Center's kitchen while distributing maps and meals to the cadre of 50 volunteer drivers for delivery.

When the virus caused the Center itself to shutter its programs and services, Meals on Wheels spread its distribution activities into the facility's large auditorium to provide its volunteers with social distancing space. A dedicated in- and out-door traffic flow and plenty of sanitizer and masks have kept the service and its people safe and virus-free for the past 15 months.

Over the course of the pandemic, the number of meals delivered daily steadily rose to include another 300 as additional clients signed up. Fuller said Meals on Wheels could keep up with the rising demand because the flexibility of the otherwise unused Center facility easily accommodated both the extra meal prep and additional tables needed for distribution.

Her vision is to develop two remote distribution hubs, one in South Salem and the other in West Salem. Each day, the Center 50+ kitchen will deliver the appropriate number of meals to the distribution hubs, and drivers will go to them instead of the Center to retrieve their assignments.

The strategy "solves the overcrowding problem back at Center 50+ and also makes it easier for our volunteer drivers to complete their routes," Fuller said. South- and West-based drivers will be able to pick up and deliver their packages closer to home without having to travel first to the Northeast Liberty Road Center to retrieve them.

In South Salem, an existing relationship may already resolve the distribution space concern. The South Salem Senior Center donated space for hosting Meals on Wheels services on-site before the pandemic hit. That space may convert into a distribution hub. As for West Salem, Fuller is just now starting a search for a comparable option. Both sites will also need additional volunteers to support distribution and delivery activities.

Fuller recognizes that demand for the Meals on Wheels service will always fluctuate, as other community and civic services contribute resources to feed Salem's aging and ability-challenged population. But she's also aware that the number of Salem's seniors and disabled adults is also growing, as will the need to cook and deliver an increasing number of daily meals.

Perhaps even more valuable to clients than the food, however, is the relationship that develops between drivers and clients. "In many cases, drivers become fast friends with their clients," Fuller said. 

The short time spent together during the delivery is often the only face-to-face human interaction home-bound seniors have each day. "That social connection does as much to maintain our client's health as our food does,” she said.

For more information, see the Center 50+ and Marion Polk Food Share websites, or call 503-364-2856.

Pam Sornson is a freelance writer based in Salem. Contact her at [email protected]

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