‘More than just a meal’

Published 12:50 pm Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Jessica York, as executive director of Meals on Wheels of Suffolk & Isle of Wight Inc., holds one of the few paid positions in the largely volunteer-based nonprofit meal delivery service, but frequently finds herself doing the same work as her unpaid drivers.

The organization, founded in 1987 as a charter member of Meals on Wheels America, delivers ready-to-eat meals to senior citizens and other homebound residents in Suffolk and Isle of Wight County who find it difficult or impossible to prepare meals themselves.

Meals on Wheels delivers rain or shine Monday through Friday across 11 routes through the city and county. If a volunteer isn’t available to cover a route, York will step in to make the delivery herself.

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“Meals on Wheels is more than just a meal delivery service,” York said. “For many seniors, the Meals on Wheels driver is the only person they see all day. The driver becomes a familiar face and someone to look forward to seeing each day.”

The organization, formerly known as Suffolk Meals on Wheels, changed its name in 2021 to let prospective clients and volunteers know the routes extend beyond the city borders into Isle of Wight.

York is herself from the Carrsville area of the county and has been in her role for just under a year. She became the Suffolk and Isle of Wight chapter’s executive director last June after spending over 25 years as a geriatric social worker.

The chapter has a volunteer force of more than 200 groups, individuals and businesses. Among them are Debra Thurston and Susan Fowlkes of the Woman’s Club of Smithfield.

They’ve been volunteering with Meals on Wheels for the past four years. Thurston also volunteers with the Smithfield Mobile Pantry, a division of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore that provides food on the second Thursday of each month in the Luter Sports Complex to area residents unable to afford groceries. Fowlkes also donates food to the Smithfield-based Christian Outreach Program, and is a former COP volunteer.

Meals on Wheels, however, has seen a decline in volunteer participation in recent years. Some of the attrition, York said, is due to the inflation that has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic. In other cases, the volunteers themselves are senior citizens and are having to cut back due to health issues or medical appointments.

“We are always welcoming new faces to our mission,” York said.

Last year, Meals on Wheels of Suffolk & Isle of Wight delivered more than 36,000 meals to 199 clients across the city and county. Since January, they’ve delivered another 10,000 meals to 150 clients. Over 90% of the meals are delivered by volunteers but “availability is a constant challenge as my volunteers have a life too,” York said.

Volunteers typically arrive at Sentara Obici Hospital, where the chapter is based, between 10:45 and 1130 a.m. to pick up the meal bags and their delivery instructions. Delivery usually takes about one to one-and-a-half hours. Meals on Wheels has drop-off locations throughout its coverage area so volunteers don’t have to travel back to Obici to return the empty cooler bags.

Isle of Wight has three routes, one through Smithfield, one through Windsor and the rural areas of the county, and one serving the Carrollton and Rushmere communities.

Volunteers have their choice of route and availability. Some come one to two days per week, others once a month or once per quarter. York often has uncovered routes.

The chapter receives no state or federal funding, and supports itself through grants, donations, fundraising and private payments for meals. According to the chapter’s website, clients pay a $75 deposit for 10 days, then $7.50 per day billed monthly. The $7.50 buys one hot meal, one chilled meal, and two beverages. Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, a separate nonprofit, offers financial assistance to Meals on Wheels clients over age 60 who qualify.

Meals consist of two-thirds of the nutritional requirements set by Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services guidelines, and are prepared under the supervision of a registered dietician, food service director and executive chef. Meals on Wheels also offers customized meals for heart-healthy, diabetic, low-sodium, pureed, soft/chopped and renal diets.