Stephanie Archer-Smith knew immediately that Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland would have to change in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Staff members and volunteers could no longer visit homes to feed seniors on a daily basis. So how could the Baltimore-based nonprofit sustain its mission?
“For me, it wasn’t about if we could do it, it was about how we could do it,” said Archer-Smith, the organization’s executive director.
Senior centers closed. Elderly people were asked to shelter in place. Some were abruptly cut off from helpful family members. And this was no winter storm; it was a crisis with no obvious endpoint.
The answer turned out to be an on-the-fly reimagining of the entire operation, even as demand for food skyrocketed.
“Every day, we were getting more and more calls from people saying, ‘Can you help us?’” Archer-Smith said.
So, Meals on Wheels geared up for greater production, churning out boxed frozen meals instead of customized hot and cold offerings. Packing became more labor intensive, with volunteers (many freshly recruited) taking on shifts from before sunrise until after sunset. Instead of making daily home visits to clients, they dropped meals outside the door once a week and checked up twice a week by phone.
Meals on Wheels now produces 75,000 meals a week, triple its pre-pandemic load, and serves more than 3,500 people daily, about twice as many as before the pandemic.
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“We had to basically turn it on its head,” said Archer-Smith, a 57-year-old Mount Washington resident who’s worked at Meals on Wheels for eight years. “We took the essentials — nutrition and [combating] isolation — and said OK, let’s focus on those.”
LaTanya “Tami” Clark sounds much like Smith when describing what she does as senior nutrition manager for the Anne Arundel County Department of Aging and Disabilities. That makes sense because the two women coordinate weekly to make sure meals reach the hundreds of Anne Arundel seniors who need them.
“We are in the trenches together,” Clark said. “I have leaned on Meals on Wheels, and they have been such an ally and an avid supporter. They have been phenomenal.”
A dietician by training, the 61-year-old Clark has long viewed food as her best means to deliver nurture and comfort. Sometimes, people call from other states, worried that aging loved ones won’t get enough to eat. She’s happy to step in as their surrogate, aided by her staff of about 20.
In addition to the Meals on Wheels deliveries, Clark has coordinated with the Maryland Food Bank to distribute 25-pound boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables every other Friday and has enlisted local farmers to provide bags of fresh produce and eggs to seniors who can’t leave their homes. The county’s numerous Korean residents get their meals from a Korean catering service.
Clark, who’s worked for Anne Arundel County since 2012, has a simple mantra she repeats when some new logistical challenge arises: “We can get this done.”
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