Volunteers and food donors avert crisis

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Emily Hatton

On many Saturdays, Amie Wheeler and her mother, Michelle Melita, can be found loading up the trunk of their car with grocery bags filled with food they deliver to homebound seniors in Washington, D.C. But one Saturday last month they had so much to deliver they had to split the route with a friend.

Wheeler and other volunteers with Iona Senior Services were trying to make up for a shortfall caused by the sudden closing of Nutrition Inc., a company that delivered meals to more than 3,000 seniors across the city for more than 25 years under contract with the D.C. Office on Aging (DCOA).

The company gave the DCOA only four days’ notice of its impending closure. Iona stepped in to assist within days of word getting out. The nonprofit group addresses needs of older residents in Northwest Washington and serves as the DCOA lead agency for Ward 3 and part of Ward 2.

“We sent out the first notice [for volunteers] Wednesday evening,” said Sally White, executive director. “By Thursday morning, we already had a huge commitment of people to bring in food.”

The e-mail included a list of specific items recommended by Iona’s nutritionist. Members of the Iona listserv not only responded themselves, but forwarded the message to their social clubs, churches and even a motorcycle group, according to White.

More than 30 people volunteered that Saturday, many bringing family or other community service teams with them. Volunteer clubs arrived to help, even though it was not their scheduled weekend.

Participants created emergency food kits with shelf-stable items for residents to eat during the week. Each kit included crackers, peanut butter, tuna, instant oatmeal, cereal, soup, juice, fruit cups or applesauce, and extra items.

“There were enough regulars that we could show the new folks how to get it done,” said Wheeler, who lives in McLean, Va. “We managed to deliver the food, and it only took an hour longer than usual.”

A huge success

Iona volunteers typically distribute weekend food supplies to 100 seniors every Saturday, said Lylie Fisher, Iona’s director of community engagement. But on June 11, they added the emergency food kits to last through the week and expanded deliveries to additional residents affected by the closing of Nutrition Inc.

Iona is unusual in that it has a cadre of volunteers who regularly deliver food on Saturdays. Most other lead agencies have paid contractors that deliver on weekends.

So when residents of Ward 5 approached their lead agency for help, Seabury Aging Services reached into its own emergency food pantry to hand out food. It also helped residents locate other resources, from churches to food banks, to make up the shortfall, said Dawn Quattlebaum, the agency’s director.

Altogether, seven lead agencies worked to provide food for seniors across the District, according to Dr. John Thompson, DCOA executive director. The Home Delivered Meal Program that had been serviced by Nutrition Inc. served 520 people on weekends.

“Based on feedback, it appears that this effort was a huge success,” Thompson said in a written statement. He noted that there are now several temporary vendors in place to provide food to homebound seniors throughout the District.

Community generosity   

Iona’s director of development Meg Artley said the agency recorded donations from 120 people, but many donors dropped off food anonymously. She estimated 175 people brought in food for more than 400 emergency kits.

“We always want to do more, and this allowed us to really reach out in a big way through this crisis,” said White.

In addition to all the individual volunteers, the Whole Foods Market near Iona donated fresh food, including fruit and sandwiches, as well as more than 100 units of shelf-safe milk, said Fisher.

Iona staff and volunteers will continue to deliver food and check on meal recipients, said White.

Normally, completing each Saturday’s delivery route takes one to two hours, said Wheeler, and stops vary from individuals living in private homes, to group homes, to senior citizen apartment buildings.

 “For some of them, it’s the only visitor that they’re going to get. So they appreciate the visit and, you know, just a little chitty chat. But we can’t talk long because we’ve got to keep going,” said Wheeler.

“There are people in their own neighborhoods that can go hungry if we’re not watching out for them,” said White. “We are one city and we really need to work together.”

Without charities and the D.C. Office on Aging, people would be going hungry, said White. “We’re a safety net, a lifeline to a lot of these people….Volunteers are essential to our work.”

To volunteer at Iona Senior Services or make a donation, e-mail Fisher at lfisher@iona.org or call her at (202) 895-9425.