Meals on Wheels scrambles to serve senior clients

By Elise Zwicky For Chronicle Media

Jeff Hainline, a chef at the Peoria Country Club, has been volunteering daily at the Neighborhood House kitchen to help prepare food for seniors through the agency’s Meals on Wheels program while the PCC has been closed during the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Neighborhood House)

Social distancing has shortened the amount of time that Meals on Wheels drivers are spending with their senior clients in Peoria and Tazewell counties, but the service is continuing to bring nutritious meals to the most vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve been able to maintain the program without disruption even though we have lost about a third of our staff mainly due to self-quarantining because they fall into the high-risk category since a lot of our drivers are over the age of 75,” said Becky Rossman, CEO of Neighborhood House, which manages the local Meals on Wheels program.

With need for the service increasing, Neighborhood House has hired seven new drivers and numerous volunteers. The YMCA also has loaned the program three drivers and vehicles.

“Initially, we were having management and our youth service staff filling in. We really appreciate the overwhelming support from the community and our community partnerships,” Rossman said. “It truly does take a village.”

Following the declaration of a pandemic in March and the issuance of a stay-at-home order by Gov. J.B. Pritzker through at least April 7, more seniors have been inquiring about the service.

“We went from about 730 home deliveries to 790 right now, and I think we’re going to go all the way up to 850,” Rossman said.

The service is available to homebound seniors who are at least 60 and to socially isolated younger people who are disabled and unable to shop or cook for themselves.

“We are getting a lot of referrals that aren’t necessarily appropriate for the program. People are just afraid. So we are triaging a little bit because the need is so great right now. If they’re over 60, they’re socially isolated or they have some kind of immune deficiency or respiratory illness, then those people are getting top priority right now,” Rossman said.

Other callers who don’t meet the criteria are being referred to 2-1-1, a national helpline that provides information about local social services.

The type of hot meal clients receive hasn’t changed during the crisis, but they will be receiving additional shelf-stable meals delivered by 160 volunteers next week to tide them over in case the service should be disrupted in the coming weeks.

“We do this usually in the fall for inclement weather, but we’re doing it now in case my staff gets sick and we’re down for a week or something happens to our kitchen. That way the seniors will still have something to eat in our absence. We’re hoping it doesn’t come to that, but we want to get those out just in case,” Rossman said.

Groups of volunteers also picked up and delivered pet food discounted by PetSmart to Meals on Wheels clients with pets through the Critters Meals on Wheels program.

“Those (critter meals) were hard to get out with maintaining the status quo plus the growing need, so those volunteers have been invaluable,” Rossman said.

While one benefit of the program has always been the social contact seniors receive through the meal deliveries, Rossman said that has changed.

“Typically, we want our drivers to spend a few minutes with each client. We also do wellness checks to make sure there’s no change of behavior. But right now it’s more of a knock-and-drop,” she said. “It really depends on the individual, but we are trying to limit our driver’s contact just because we can’t risk anyone getting sick and having to quarantine everyone.”

Neighborhood House is also planning to expand its twice-monthly food pantry to a weekly operation because of increased need. A food drive is planned in a few weeks at Northwoods Mall, but non-perishable donations are accepted anytime.

For more information about Meals on Wheels or to request the service, call program director Gary Moore or assistant Kristie Wright at 309-674-1131.

Volunteers from Freedom Paws Service Dogs, Heart of Illinois Big Brothers Big Sisters and ICC nursing students have helped deliver pet food to Neighborhood House Meals on Wheels clients who have pets. Due to an increased need in the Meals on Wheels program during the coronavirus crisis, the volunteers have been invaluable, said Neighborhood House CEO Becky Rossman. (Photo courtesy of Neighborhood House)

In Chillicothe, where about 16 seniors receive Meals on Wheels, community leaders are joining together to offer grocery shopping and porch delivery to the elderly and other high risk individuals in the community. Churches offering the service include Chillicothe Christian Church, First United Methodist Church, St. Mark Lutheran Church and St. Edward’s Catholic Church.

Volunteers with the Freedom Paws Service Dogs Foundation and AMVETS Post 77 are also collecting non-perishables for delivery to elderly and disabled veterans in Chillicothe, Rome or Mossville during the pandemic. For more information, call Corey James, Freedom Paws founder, at 309-669-7917.

“The main message to seniors is stay home,” said Chillicothe Township Supervisor Mike Ratcliffe, who convened a meeting of community leaders and volunteers to coordinate efforts. “Call if you need something. If you are the remote children of a local senior and have concerns, call us. We can go check on them and make sure they get what they need.”


The Community Needs Agency is also continuing to help Chillicothe seniors during the unprecedented pandemic. “The world around us is changing rapidly, and CNA wants to assure you that we will remain available, accessible and ready to support the needs of our community—now and in the future,” CNA president Darlene Kumpf wrote recently on the organization’s Facebook page.

“We are finding new ways to support your needs, while keeping everyone safe via email, phone consultations and outside delivery of food pick-up. We will be adhering to physical distancing and limiting access to the various parts of the building. We are all in this together. Please stay safe,” she added.

For more information or to request help in Chillicothe, call the CNA office at (309) 274-6333 or email or visit the Community Needs Agency’s Facebook page. Chillicothe Township Supervisor Mike Ratcliff can be reached at 309- 274-8188.

“We’ve got to take care of the people that need taking care of. It’s all hands on deck right now,” Ratcliff said.