Demand for senior meals growing along with need for volunteers

An agency that prides itself on “delivering kindness” is on track to serve 220,000 meals to 2,400 seniors by year’s end.

That’s a 5 percent increase over the previous year.

The volunteer drivers for Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels distribute about 450 meals to homebound seniors each day along 45 routes in Benton and Franklin counties.

More than 500 volunteers are expected to log 30,000 hours of labor and record nearly 100,000 miles by the end of the year.

Each year the number of seniors needing hot meals grows.

“In 2009, we were serving 132,000 meals. That’s 90,000 less than what we’ll serve this year,” said Kristi Thien, nutrition services director for Senior Life Resources Northwest, the parent organization of Meals on Wheels.

From 2017-18, the agency saw 16 percent growth in the number of meals delivered, a significant increase, Thien said.

“We’re grateful it slowed down just a bit,” she said.

The program also offers a noon meal at eight dining centers throughout the two counties for more active seniors.

Volunteer Mike Neely helps assemble meals for the seniors once a week. Poverty isn’t just a third-world problem, he said. “We have lots of people here who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” he said.

Stephanie Burke, the packaging coordinator for Meals on Wheels, slides a pasta meal into an insulated tote to ready it for delivery.

Volunteers and staff worked Nov. 20 to assemble 700 emergency meal kits. Consisting mostly of canned goods and other shelf-stable items, like granola bars and trail mix, the kits are meant to tide seniors over when drivers can’t get to their homes because of snowy roads or road closures. Each box contains five meals. The boxes were distributed Nov. 25.

The agency delivers meals Monday through Friday. On Thursdays, seniors receive frozen meals to reheat on the weekends and holidays when there are no deliveries.

In the coming year, Meals on Wheels will begin preparing and assembling its own frozen meals. Right now, the nonprofit buys them.

“We’ll be able to have control over the nutrients, the quality and we can do it less expensively,” Thien said.

Senior Life Resources Northwest recently completed a $100,000 project to build a 1,200-square-foot facility to house a large freezer to store the meals. Lamb Weston donated $50,000 toward the cost of the building, and a local physician donated $30,000 for the new freezer.

In addition to meals, volunteer drivers also deliver gifts to seniors around Christmas time.

Each holiday season a giving tree decorates the agency’s Richland lobby that features tags highlighting items seniors would like to receive. Hats, gloves, stationery, stamps, cat and dog food, slippers, sweat pants and Walmart gift cards are among the most requested items. This year nearly 200 seniors made requests.

Drivers deliver the gifts before Christmas. “They love being able to do that,” Thien said.

Because Meals on Wheels drivers often serve as the front line of defense for seniors with their daily check-ins, they know seniors can get lonely.

But the drivers don’t have time to stop for long visits during their routes, Thien said.

That’s why Meals on Wheels plans to roll out a new “friendly visitors” program this month aimed at connecting seniors and volunteers.

“It’s a chance for people who aren’t available to volunteer during the day to sign up and visit some people who are lonely,” Thien said.

While the nonprofit is always grateful for all its generous community support, nothing is appreciated more than simple monetary donations, Thien said.

“Money for meals is always my No. 1 request,” she said.

The agency faced an unexpected expense when thieves broke into and stole one of its vans on Nov. 12.

The 1998 van, equipped with a food oven valued at $3,000, was “worth very little money but is priceless to us,” Thien said. “It becomes the most valuable car you own because you don’t make a payment on it. It functioned perfectly. We used it every week to pick up bread,” she said.

The van was discovered abandoned just before Thanksgiving in Seattle. Thieves apparently used it to transport marijuana. They spray-painted over the Meals on Wheels logo on the outside, stole the oven and license plates, and damaged the steering column to hot wire it and the doors no longer lock.

Thien said the van will need to be decontaminated before it’s usable again.

It’s not the first time thieves targeted the nonprofit. They once busted the back window of a sedan to steal $8 worth of food. It cost $300 to replace the window, Thien said.

How to get involved

Volunteers interested in helping with meal delivery or the friendly visitors program must undergo a background check.

The Senior Life Resources Northwest office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Monday through Friday at 1824 Fowler St. in Richland.

For more information, call 509-735-1911 or visit

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