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Meals on Wheels transitions service, promises minimal change for clients

HAPPY TO GIVE — Meals on Wheels volunteers are pictured creating meal boxes on the food line. Photo provided by Rachel Leidenfrost.
Thousands of people in Western New York receive meals from Western New York Meals on Wheels and, this winter, many additional Southtowns municipalities will be added to that list.

The WNY Meals on Wheels organization won the contract for the area previously covered by Southtowns Meals on Wheels, after Erie County put out a request for proposals, in July. According to WNYMOW President and CEO Tara Ellis, the organization did not learn that its contract had been amended to include the Southtowns until August.

“With the rising cost of food and fuel, it’s become very difficult for individual towns to continue to offer the service,” said Ginny Krebs, a member of the Meals on Wheels transition team. “We’re working together to make sure the change is easy on everyone,” she added.

For the past 13 years, SMOW has operated as an independent consortium in the towns of Colden, Sardinia, Holland, Boston and Concord, feeding the residents of those communities separately.

The board of directors of the SMOW organization got county funding to help out, and each town’s coordinator helped make sure the meals got to the people who needed them.

Now that SMOW has been disbanded, Ellis said that her organization started having reorganization meetings “right away,” to make sure that residents saw no changes to their service, except “maybe the logo on the tray.”

According to Ellis, the Western New York organization was founded in 1969, on the heels of the Elder Americans Act, which provided federal funding for such programs.

“We started out as an ecumenical organization, serving 25 meals in the city of Buffalo, and we’ve added over time,” Ellis said.

That organization now serves almost all municipalities in the greater Buffalo area, except Alden, Springville, Kenmore-Tonawanda and Amherst, each of which has its own methods of delivering meals.

The program is supported by the United States Department of Agriculture, the New York State Office of the Aging, Erie County, some funding from Fidelis, Medicaid and Welfare and client contributions, which are entirely voluntary.

Municipalities also contribute to the fund, but Ellis said that those contributions are also entirely voluntary and vary widely, depending partly on the residents’ participation in the program and the size of the municipality.

One of the largest sources of revenue for the organization are donations, and Ellis said that, as a 501(c)(3) entity, WNYMOW is required to designate all funds toward the program or service the donation specifies.

“We don’t have enough funding for [donations] to not stay in the community,” Ellis said.

“That said, the donor does have to designate funds. If you write that you want your money to go to Concord, it will go to Concord. If you write that you want it to go to a new boiler, that’s where it will go. We’re bound by our charter to do that,” she added.

In all Meals on Wheels programs, regardless of which entity supplies them, people 60 and older who cannot shop for or prepare their own meals may be eligible for meals to be delivered to their homes, five days per week. Individuals can request service by calling 858-8526, to initiate an in-home evaluation for meals, as well as any other benefits or

services for which the person may be eligible. A doctor’s note specifying any dietary restrictions must be provided.

With WNYMOW, the options for meals include low-calorie; low-fat; renal; ground, for those who are unable to chew or swallow and bland, for those who are sensitive to spices. The program also has a supplemental pet food program, so clients are not feeding their food to their pets, although Ellis added that this program is intended as a supplement only, not to sustain the pet entirely.

“Our dieticians do independent research; they reach out and look at the client, to make sure they’re getting what they need,” Ellis said.

The group also offers a fee-for-service program, for those who would rather not get involved in the government programs, and a program for those who are 18 – 60 years old who are disabled or otherwise unable to feed themselves. Ellis said that some people partake of a mix of programs, which can be tailored to an individual’s needs.

The organization has a team of social workers who assess clients to see what services are most appropriate, and the speed of that intake can depend on how urgently assistance is needed.

“It depends on the circumstances,” Ellis said. “We can triage the person and get them services as quickly as 24 hours, if need be.”

About four – six weeks after the initial intake, which can take up to a week for a non-emergency client, a social worker sits down with each client to figure out what is the best approach, for that person.

“They get an initial baseline reading and a complete evaluation of the person’s height, weight, skin condition, living conditions, surroundings, a real good report,” Ellis said. “That way, if a client is losing weight or their skin is looking ‘off,’ we know what they looked like at the beginning, so we can get them back on track.”

Clients are re-evaluated annually, if there are no changes in their circumstances or health. If a person’s health or situation changes, an evaluation is conducted, to adapt his or her potential service.

As for the changes clients will see in their service, Ellis said those should be “very, very minimal.

“Our primary goal is to make sure that no one who is hungry and without food [and] no one who is without companionship and is lonely goes without those things,” Ellis said. “Every town we’ve talked to has pledged to help. We’re maintaining volunteers and supervisors and can always use more. We [SMOW and WNYMOW] have the same goal.”

Ellis said that, in the beginning, meal delivery may be five or 10 minutes off schedule, as the new organization tries to work out routes, but that she thinks it will be easier for caregivers to work with the new organization.

“Now, there is one number to call,” she said. “There’s one website. We are a 44-year tested program. Previously, each town had their own way of doing things, but now, it’s all unified.”

Krebs said that she has worked on the transition as someone who “more or less knows the territory.”

Krebs is on the Erie County advisory board for the organization, and said that so far, she is “impressed with the whole-team approach” that WNYMOW has taken.

“Southtowns Meals on Wheels were pioneers in addressing the needs of our community,” she said. “They were the first ones willing to come into our snowy, hilly little climate. The fact that [SMOW] could inspire so many volunteers is a testament to those towns working together to do that.”

Krebs said that, from her perspective, the transition is running as smoothly as possible.

“Our focus, everyone’s focus, is on the clients,” she said. “People need to get their meals. That’s the most important thing. For site managers, there’s a lot of things they won’t have to worry about anymore, although they will still be the main conduit to the client.”

Ellis said that she acknowledges that change is difficult, and that she and WNYMOW are working to help everyone through the change.

“We are really proud of our program and what we’ve been able to do,” she said. “Some of the volunteers and clients get very close, over the years, and we hope that our volunteers stay on with us and continue those relationships.”

Questions about the way the new WNYMOW will operate may be directed to the organization at 822-2002 ext. 33. The organization may also be found online at www.mealsonwheelswny.org.
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