Comfort Food

Funding for a new volunteer co-ordinator position at Meals on Wheels will help even more vulnerable people maintain independence along with physical and mental health

It’s a Thursday evening and volunteers are arriving at the downtown Meals on Wheels office where they will pick up several bags of frozen meals and groceries to bring to clients around the city. But it’s far from the first volunteers the location has seen that day — they started coming at six in the morning and helping the company’s Red Seal Chef and the rest of the kitchen team prepare and package meals from scratch using healthy ingredients and delicious recipes.

Meals on Wheels does not serve bland hospital food like some may think. People are often pleasantly surprised by the company’s impressive menu, ranging from Indian dishes including chana masala to comfort food like shepherd’s pie. The international brand has been around since the ’50s, though Edmonton opened theirs in 1969, serving just a few clients. Now, they produce nearly 700 meals a day, hot and frozen, while offering grocery delivery to clients.

There’s a steady, daily stream of dedicated individuals coming through the office, including 50 drivers, up to 30 people in the kitchen and about 40 grocery shoppers. Altogether, Edmonton Meals on Wheels has more than 1,200 annual volunteers to do an impressive amount of work, says client services manager Lindsay Rothman.

Managing the volunteers is a complicated job that Rothman currently juggles, along with countless other tasks. Luckily, that’s about to change, thanks to funding from Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF), which will go toward hiring a volunteer co-ordinator. Rothman knows that dedicating a staff member to the volunteers will help grow and improve their services.

“I know this program has the potential and capacity of being a really huge thing because there is nothing else like it. I know there is a huge need and I know that we could quadruple what we are doing,” says Rothman.

The organization feeds those who are vulnerable and may not be able to make meals or grocery-shop on their own for a variety of reasons ranging from illness to disability to lack of mobility. Their motto is “feeding body and soul” and the latter part is where the volunteers are integral to the company’s mission, says Rothman.

Benjamin Jackman rings the doorbell at Meals on Wheels, and Rothman opens the door so he can enter the facility where he’s been coming for the last two years. He was one of the first volunteers who signed on when the organization first started using evening drivers. Prior to that, the volunteer shifts were only during the day, but for Jackman and many others, evening shifts proved much more convenient.

Volunteers like Jackman, says Rothman, are trained to check on clients and ensure they are behaving normally and not in need of medical attention. It’s not unusual for volunteers to be a part of saving a client’s life or ensuring they get the treatment they need. In fact, the day of the interview and the day before, Rothman had called an ambulance for two different clients.

Volunteers also spend time with clients, and those social interactions are incredibly important for mental, emotional and physical health. “So many of the clients are vulnerable and isolated and do not see anybody else in a day. The volunteer is the only person that they see,” says Rothman.

For Jackman, that interaction is the best part of the volunteer experience; it’s what keeps him coming back. He has seen the impact it can have for clients’ quality of life, and for elderly individuals who make up nearly 87 per cent of their clientele, it can keep them in their homes longer.

Over the course of two years, he has developed friendships with clients that go beyond what he expected — he remembers watching a soccer game with one, and discussing hockey with the grandfather of an NHL player. One client had been a regular for two years, during which time they discussed world events, science, politics and movies.

Rothman says the organization currently has a volunteer base large enough to support more clients. And the agency is positioned to support the growing demographic of seniors in need of community food programs. She knows that the program could be expanded to help even more people, which is why the organization wants to hire a co-ordinator to help grow its programs and services. Funding from ECF will help make that possible.