Meals on Wheels and More celebrates 40 years of feeding Austinites in need
You don't have to look very hard to find a calculator in the Meals on Wheels and More kitchen on East Fifth Street.
Head chef Ruben Burnett and food director John Harvath are always punching in numbers to make sure they and their staff of about 18 are cooking and divvying up the right portions of food that go into the more than 3,000 meals they put together every day of the workweek.
With the help of more than 6,500 volunteers, Meals on Wheels and More, which started 40 years ago with just eight volunteers cooking and delivering meals to 29 seniors, delivers almost 1 million meals a year to low-income, home-bound Central Texans. About two-thirds of the clients are older than 65, but many younger people qualify because they are both low-income and home-bound.
"It sounds hokey, but it's a labor of love," says Dan Pruett, president of Meals on Wheels and More.
Pruett spends much of his time trying to get the word out about the "more" part of the nonprofit's mission — only about half of their dozen programs involve food. Others coordinate home repair, pet care, respite care for clients with Alzheimer's and phone calls just to say hello — but the commercial-sized kitchen that pumps out all those meals is the heart of the operation.
One morning last week, as trays of freshly cooked turkey noodle casserole, spinach and corn pass through a machine that seals the containers with plastic, Burnett says cooking for Meals on Wheels and More is a far cry from the country club kitchen he left about a decade ago.
"With industrial type cooking, it's all in bulk. You can relax a little more than plate-to-plate dining," Burnett says, but the culinary staff face challenges that other chefs don't.
For many of the clients, the Meals on Wheels delivery is the only hot meal they'll eat all day, so it has to be nutritionally dense. But each meal can't cost more than $3 to prepare. (The average meal cost is $2.39.)
People don't stop eating on the weekends, so two days a week, the kitchen staff arrives at 2 a.m., two hours earlier than usual, to prepare extra food to make sure Meals on Wheels' clients have meals to eat on Saturdays and Sundays, too.
Most of the food is prepared either in large jacketed kettles or commercial ovens. The kitchen staff and meal planners have to work together to make sure that the menu doesn't feature, say, roasted potatoes and roasted chicken on the same day or else there won't be enough equipment to get the food cooked and out the door in time for volunteers to start making deliveries.
In addition to the regular meals, the kitchen staff also prepares variations for clients who are on low-potassium diets, who require softer or even pureed foods and those who, because of gastrointestinal issues, need food a little on the bland side.
"It's a huge challenge to balance nutritional needs and palatability," says Seanna Marceaux, a registered dietitian who has been the director of nutrition services for four years and who helps plan the menus months in advance.
Over the years, the quality of both the ingredients and the meals themselves have improved. They've added couscous and orzo to the lineup, and after they switched chicken legs for chicken thighs, Burnett discovered he had a hit on his hands. "They love the chicken thigh," he says. "Oven-baked or honey mustard, doesn't matter."
They often serve brown rice and whole grain pasta, and, when it's financially feasible, cook meats from their raw state instead of using pre-cooked patties.
Jell-O isn't the only dessert on the menu. Burnett says they often serve crisps, made with apples, peaches or even pineapples. (A trick from Burnett: To make strawberry applesauce, mix strawberry Jell-O with regular applesauce.)
It costs more to use better ingredients (11 cents more per meal for whole grain bread instead of white bread, for instance), but when the health and livelihood of so many are at stake, it's worth it, Marceaux says.
Like many dietitians, Marceaux got specific training on nutrition for older people, but she went back to school and recently earned a master's degree from Texas State University with an emphasis on meeting and exceeding their nutritional needs.
"We nourish them physically, and their emotional spirit as well. We treat the whole person," she says.
Marceaux and another registered dietitian on staff often work on the phone with clients to get their feedback about meals and work with them on eating strategies they can use to improve their lipid profile or prevent unintentional weight loss.
Marceaux says that comfort foods are always in the top 10, and one of the perennial favorites is the Ron Lantz meatloaf, which was named after a longtime volunteer. (Later this year, Meals on Wheels is launching a public campaign to find the next great community-submitted recipe. You'll be able to find guidelines and details on the website mealsonwheelsandmore.org in August.)
Burnett and his kitchen staff are technically contract workers through a company called Valley Services, but they are as much a part of the Meals on Wheels family as the more than 6,500 volunteers who keep the programs afloat.
Monday through Friday, hundreds of volunteers either come to the main kitchen or to one of the 15 distribution sites to pick up meals for delivery, but some of the clients get their meals at one of a dozen congregate sites, which include senior centers, where they can enjoy the food together.
Volunteers are also the backbone of another Meals on Wheels program called Groceries to Go, which connects clients with volunteers who either help them go grocery shopping or go with them. Through another initiative with the Capital Area Food Bank, volunteers deliver additional groceries to Meals on Wheels clients who are particularly at risk of not having enough to eat.
"There are so many people who need our services," Pruett says. "Austin is such a young, hip town. We tend not to talk about older adults, but Austin has one of the fastest growing senior citizen populations in the country."
A few years ago, for the first time in the group's history, Meals on Wheels and More had to implement a wait list. (Although the organization is always accepting volunteers to deliver food by car, there is a wait list to be able to deliver meals via bike. The Austin Meals on Wheels chapter was the first in the country to start a bike-delivery service. Portland quickly followed.)
It weighs on the staff to know that there are more than 100 people waiting to get on a meal-delivery route and that in coming years, there will be even more people who qualify for help, but they try to focus on providing the best meals and services to the people they do have the resources to help.
"Everyone is working toward the same goal; we have the same purpose," says Jon Willard, a recent Le Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts graduate and Burnett's right-hand man. "It's a blessing to serve the community."
Contact Addie Broyles at 912-2504. Twitter: @broylesa
By the numbers
Meals distributed in 2011: 967,495
Clients reached annually: 5,264
Daily delivery routes: 247
Meals distributed daily: 3,500
Value of volunteer hours: $2.4 million
Full- and part-time staff: 110
2011-2012 operating budget: $7.7 million
Percent of clients who live alone: 50
Percent of clients who are female: 67
Percent of clients who are older than 65: 67
How to help
During summer, Meals on Wheels and More needs more volunteers to fill in as substitutes for regular volunteers who go on vacation. They also need volunteers to help clients shop for groceries in its Groceries to Go program, as well as others to assist the Alzheimer's respite care program called Mike's Place, which takes place from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. every Wednesday.
The organization hosts a standing volunteer orientation at 12:15 p.m. every Thursday. Contact volunteer recruiter Denise Jimenez at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 476-6325.