Have you ever wondered how Meals on Wheels Orange County develops and distributes millions of meals per year? Several months ago, I received a flyer in the mail asking this exact same question. I reached out to Meals on Wheels OC to schedule a tour of their 22,000-square-foot community kitchen at 1200 North Knollwood Circle in Anaheim, which produces two million meals and up to 300,000 gallons of bulk food per year.
Meals on Wheels Orange County is the largest nonprofit provider of nutrition and supportive services for at-risk older adults, serving 19 Orange County cities. “For 55 years, we have been committed to erasing hunger and loneliness for at-risk older adults through nutritious meals, friendly visits, and safety checks, and keeping families together through day services,” said Darla Olson, Vice President, Advancement for Meals on Wheels OC. “The demand for our services has increased dramatically in the past few years.”
I had the pleasure of meeting with Olson early on a Tuesday morning in the middle of July. She showed me to a media briefing room, where she explained that the Meals on Wheels Orange County delivery program distributes three nutritious meals a day, five days a week, to homebound adults aged 60 or older. The individuals they serve usually have difficulty shopping for or preparing meals and do not have family or friends who they can depend on for regular meal support.
Olson explained that over 660,000 meals are delivered yearly to homebound older adults and that those home-delivered meals include breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I learned from her that 1 in 4 low-income seniors in Orange County struggle with hunger, and discovered that over 29% of low-income adults living within the County are food insecure.
“Meals, friendly visitors, resource referrals, and day services help older adults cope with the three biggest threats to their health: nutrition, isolation, and loss of independence,” she explained. “Being lonely can have as much effect on the health of an older adult as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and may be more harmful than lack of exercise.”
According to Christa Sherman, Director of Volunteer Services for Meals on Wheels Orange County, the non-profit does not hire volunteers in their Anaheim commercial kitchen “for safety and quality reasons.” However, they do have over 550 volunteers throughout the county who deliver meals, serve at their Lunch Café, visit homebound older adults as Friendly Visitors, and assist in the agency’s adult day centers.
The non-profit agency currently serves 1,500 seniors daily. “Most people know us for our home-delivered meal program, Meals on Wheels, but we also have the senior Lunch Café in every senior center throughout central and north Orange County. We have 23 senior centers. Older adults come for lunch,” said Olson. “There’s a $3 suggested donation, but no one is ever turned away for not being able to make a donation. It not only gives them a healthy meal but also socialization, which helps reduce isolation. We have 96 employees agency-wide in all our programs, including Home-Delivered Meals, Congregate Lunch Cafés in senior centers, Adult Day Health Care, Adult Day Care, and Care Coordination programs. Eighty percent are full-time, and twenty percent are part-time employees, forty-four of which work in our community kitchen.”
In order to even enter their community kitchen, I had to put on a hair net, a long white jacket, and a face mask. Flat closed-toed, rubber-soled shoes were a requirement for taking the tour. Following Darla Olson through a doorway with a sign that said I was entering a restricted area, I was introduced to a section where the soups, salsas, and sauces were being made. The products are put into 200-gallon vats. Everything is cooked to the desired temperature and then pumped into a machine filled with chilled water. I learned that this process helps to extend the shelf-life of the sauces and food.
“This is our social enterprise, and this is used for profit,” she said. “We make the soups, salsas, and sauces we use for the senior programs, but we also make soups, salsas, and sauces for food brokers. We ship all over the country for these food brokers; we make a profit that’s invested in the non-profit side.”
I was then shown to the area where the congregate meals are made for the senior Lunch Café program. I watched as a cauliflower-carrot salad was prepared and mixed together and saw a bag of pasta being poured into a pot of boiling water. Olson explained that oftentimes the pasta is put into blast chillers. “When you have pasta cooking, you don’t want it to continue cooking because it will get mushy, so once it’s done to the desired consistency, they’ll put it in the blast chiller.”
In the next part of the kitchen, I observed a line of masked, gloved, hair-netted, hard-working employees placing items on black trays for homebound seniors, providing them with all the components they would need. I saw how the organized trays are then automatically fed down a conveyor belt through a machine, where they are sealed and wrapped in plastic and then placed on a movable rack to be loaded onto a truck and delivered to a senior center. Through sliding industrial-steel doors, I was able to see inside some of the kitchen’s refrigerators, where all the components that make up the meals on the trays are kept until they are put into the packs. The weekly meals are refrigerated here until they go out on trucks for delivery. Inside the freezers, the frozen dinner entrees are stored.
“Oftentimes we get asked why don’t we serve on the weekends,” she said. “This is a lot of food for an elderly, older, homebound senior, and they oftentimes will save some of it for the weekend. Oftentimes, the cold pack is enough for them, so they save the entrees for the weekend, and it’s definitely enough food to sustain them.”
Olson led me through a set of double doors into the warehouse area behind the kitchen. In the warehouse, all the supplies are kept for the senior center lunch programs. They provide all the plates, cups, knives, forks, spoons, and other utensils needed. Drivers then complete an inventory and order sheet and pull those materials before they go out for the lunches. Volunteers also enter through this section to pick up food deliveries. She explained that each volunteer delivers to about eight seniors on their route.
Christa Sherman said, “We have 18 volunteers who do meal delivery in Anaheim with pick-up at our corporate office.” Olson said that they are often asked if they take donations of food. They can’t, but they do belong to a co-op. So they buy within the co-op, which reduces costs. The reason they can’t accept donations of food is that they have to get their menus approved to meet dietary restrictions, and it wouldn’t be feasible for them to serve 1500 seniors each day with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. They buy in bulk.
“We do have menus that offer some variety, where we put in some Mexican-American meals, Italian meals, some Asian meals. We actually have an Asian-inspired menu option that those who are in the AAPI community can sign up to have,” she said. “Many of them who have signed up to receive these meals love them because the taste is really authentic. We had a group of people taste it to make sure that we were getting that authentic taste as opposed to just something you would get in American style. They are reporting that the meals are reminding them of their childhood and the meals that they grew up on. Those are things that are really important when someone is aging and not feeling well to have those flavors from the past. We are hoping to do other options and have more choices.”
The Meals on Wheels OC menus are designed by a registered dietician to meet the guidelines for healthy dietary restrictions for older adults. Olson said, “Those are approved. We do have a contract with the county to provide this service. Meals on Wheels and Lunch Café are funded in part through a grant from the California Department of Aging, as allocated by the Orange County Board of Supervisors and administered by the Office on Aging.
We also need donations from the communities because there’s not enough to cover everything and every need. It takes a village: community support, county support, and city support to really make the seniors healthy and well in the homes and communities that they love.”
To inquire about eligibility and food locations or to find out how you can help out and volunteer, visit http://www.MealsOnWheelsOC.org for further information.