Meals on wheels on road to recovery

By Megan Walchuk

Meals on Wheels in Fort Frances has been forced down a rocky road, lately. But with a little help from some new friends, they’re finding their way.

Meals on Wheels is a local organization which provides freshly made meals to seniors in their homes. It’s run by volunteers, under the guidance of a single paid employee – Gabby Hanzuk. The meals have long been provided by Riverside, and delivered by a small team of dedicated volunteers. The service allows its clients to maintain their independence and stay in their homes longer, by limiting the need to cook.

COVID-19 significantly disrupted the organization, according to Hanzuk. Because most of the volunteers are well into their senior years themselves – many into their 80s – she was forced to rethink the organization. To maintain the safety of her volunteers and clients, she was forced to make the decision to limit her client base to only those with no other way of accessing food. Family of the remainder were asked to take on the responsibility of providing food for the time being.

That put all the delivery responsibilities onto Hanzuk – a precarious position, if anything happened to her, she said.

“I had to think, what would happen to the program if I became sick,” she said.

So she reached out to Riverside for help, hoping to recruit a young volunteer or two. And what she got in response was overwhelming.

“They’ve just been so wonderful,” she said. “The support has been amazing.”

Not only did Riverside provide drivers. Under the guidance and supervision of Hanzuk, Riverside has adopted the program into the organization. Riverside’s Community Support Services along with Food Services decided to relocate the meal preparation of MOW from Rainycrest to LVGH, which was able to easily absorb the extra cooking into regular kitchen operations. This change also allowed Riverside to limit people from coming in and out of the Rainycrest – LTC facility which is a priority during COVID-19. Delivery has been provided by existing staff in the facility. The result is a streamlined service. The efficiencies have even allowed Meals on Wheels to expand; within days, they completely eliminated the waitlist for the program in Fort Frances, according to Kathryn Pierroz, Communications Coordinator for Riverside.

“Gabby and the MOW Board allowing our Riverside CSS and Food Services teams to step in and work out much of the logistics, along with coordinating and stream-lining delivery of the meals was an excellent solution to the current situation,” said Pierroz.

Part of the shift has been to move delivery from 4-5 p.m. to 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. It has been working better for drivers and clients, according to Pierroz. It allows for clients to choose to eat earlier in day or have a large lunch meal. It is also better for drivers, said Hanzuk.

“I love the new delivery time. In the winter, drivers were out in the dark. In the winter, with the dark and the roads, I always worried about them. What if they ran into trouble? The earlier delivery makes so much sense for everybody,” said Hanzuk.

Head chef Dave Larocque has been honoured to take on the responsibility of serving the Meals on Wheels program.

“When preparing meals for the Meals on Wheels clients I look at balancing the meal and making it different everyday,” Larocque said. “Through Meals on Wheels, giving back to the community is part of serving people too.”

Clients have also benefited from another new partnership – the Salvation Army. They have made two significant donations of fresh fruit to the meals on Wheels program. The fruit is cleaned by kitchen staff and delivered along with the meals, to provide extra snacks, in addition to the meals.

The new model has been expanding throughout the Riverside community. In addition to Fort Frances, Riverside CSS has now begun meal delivery in Atikokan, utilizing current Riverside employees and resources already in place at the Rainy River Health Services. In Emo, Riverside continues to provide Meals on Wheels to its clients. There, they offer curb-side pick up daily, rather then delivery, with meals available for pickup and delivery to the residents of Golden Aged Manor, to replace cafeteria services which were suspended due to COVID-19.

Through the partnership with Riverside and the Salvations Army, Hanzuk feels the program has a healthy future, and staff at Riverside agree.

“The Meals on Wheels is a valuable program that provides much more than nutritious meals to those unable to acquire and/or prepare food on their own. It allows them to be connected to their community and supports ongoing personal independence,” said Pierroz.