WILLIAMSBURG — Despite the challenges presented by the continued COVID-19 pandemic and the recent winter storms that hit the Historic Triangle, Williamsburg Area Meals on Wheels continues to make its top priority feeding community members who can’t feed themselves.
“We always knew that hunger was behind the scenes and it wasn’t necessarily prevailing in the community’s mind, but hunger has been there in our community and COVID[-19] brought it to the forefront,” Executive Director of Williamsburg Area Meals on Wheels Cathie Upton said. “And the real challenge has been keeping up with the demand, whether it’s with our seniors or children.”
Where two years ago, Williamsburg Area Meals on Wheels’ average daily meal count was around 112, it is now 202.
The organization also went from feeding 50 meals a day to children living in motels or Section 8 housing during previous summer months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, to 200, with a waiting list for more children who need Williamsburg Area Meals on Wheels’ assistance.
“And that hasn’t gone down, which breaks my heart because it’s a tremendous amount of children that we’re trying to feed that are either in Section 8 housing or living in motels, and you want to make sure you get as much nutrition out there as you can,” Upton said.
While people can refer themselves, most of Williamsburg Area Meals on Wheels’ clients come through Peninsula Agency on Aging, local social service agents and home healthcare agencies.
Meals on Wheels volunteers provide more than food for the organization’s clients. They also offer a social connection.
Food distribution brings the opportunity for the volunteers to check in with the clients and see how they are doing.
“Some of our clients have been very lonely during COVID[-19]. Family wasn’t visiting them, they didn’t get opportunities to go out with their friends or see them at church,” Upton said.
Upton said that the daily checks on clients and paying attention to red flags has always been important, but even more crucial during COVID-19.
“One of the challenges has been to decipher what is loneliness or what is a need,” she said. “I think we have been very fortunate to have such great relationships with other agencies and the faith-based community, that we can pick up the phone and solve an immediate issue and then work with other agencies to solve it long-term.”
When COVID-19 struck nearly two years ago, Meals on Wheels shifted to the place-and-go method, in which volunteers left the meals at the door and stepped back so there was no contact.
The volunteers were asked to still wave or offer some gesture to maintain a social connectedness with the clients while remaining as safe as possible.
Upton said that as more volunteers and clients have received their shots and boosters, the volunteers have returned to handing the meals directly to clients.
With COVID-19 bringing on more clients, Upton said that Williamsburg Area Meals on Wheels has been fortunate enough to also see an increase in volunteers.
“Our volunteers have been as young as 14 in the summer, helping prepare lunches for kids,” she saiid. “We have at least 10 volunteers a day dedicated to our hot meal production for seniors, and then another 28 volunteers delivering the meals. We have 14 routes per day and we try and send two volunteers per route.”
The organization was previously using various church kitchens to make the meals, but when COVID-19 hit and the volunteers struggled to meet the demand, it became clear that Williamsburg Area Meals on Wheels would need to change how it operated.
“When COVID[-19] hit, I was between three wonderful churches doing as many meals as we could,” she said. “After a year-and-a-half, it was too much. It was time to find our own kitchen. We happened to fall upon the one at the WISC, and that has turned out to be a wonderful partnership with them. We’ve got kids and parents that volunteer now. That was more than I could have ever expected.”
Upton said that the kitchen has also been a life-saver during this particularly harsh winter.
“Now with our own kitchen, I can look at the weather and say ‘we’ve got what looks like poor weather on Friday, so let’s double all the food going out on Thursday, and if we can’t go Friday, they’re fine. If they can go Friday, the clients have extra food for the weekend,'” she said. “So it gives us an opportunity to meet the need prior to the storm in a different way than we’ve been used to.”
With this year’s winter storms, Williamsburg Area Meals on Wheels’ volunteers have had to be more cognizant of clients’ living conditions when delivering the meals, Upton said.
Upton said that the winter weather this year has led to the organization going the extra mile for clients, which may mean making referrals to the proper agencies.
“This has been the winter that I’ve had more calls about somebody not having heat, or electricity, or water because their services have been cut off,” she said. “And it takes one of our volunteers to say ‘Mr. so-and-so answered the door with gloves, mittens and hats.’ Well, clearly we have a problem.”
“The goal is not to leave without trying to find a solution,” she said. “We want that power back on, we want to make sure they eat their meals.”
The nonprofit plans to open Good Food Provisions, a café based on the social enterprise model as a way to give back to the community.
The funds from the cafe will go back to the nonprofit. Upton hopes to open the cafe in the spring, but food distribution still remains the top priority.
“We’re still a community recovering from COVID[-19],” she said. “There’s always a need for resources, whether it be volunteerism or financial. Many of our friends in nonprofits are all going through the same thing. We’re all trying to adjust to what our future looks like as a nonprofit, and our community needs to continue to support us because thats how we’re helping everyone.”
Editor’s note: Local Daily Media Market President Derek Mason is a member of the Board of Directors for Williamsburg Area Meals on Wheels. Local Daily Media is the parent company for Williamsburg Yorktown Daily (WYDaily.com) and Tide Radio 92.3 FM.