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Meals on Wheels stepping up to serve seniors as demand grows during crisis

Drivers set up ‘grab and go’ sites as churches, senior centers close

Valerie Frias, CEO of Ethos, said Meals on Wheels drivers are taking new precautions.
Valerie Frias, CEO of Ethos, said Meals on Wheels drivers are taking new precautions.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The group that delivers Meals on Wheels in Boston is stepping up to meet increased demand from homebound seniors, even as it scrambles to set up “grab-and-go” sites across the city for older residents who formerly gathered for free lunches at churches, senior centers, and other sites that have closed.

Meals on Wheels is seeing an uptick in requests for home-delivered meals as seniors try to comply with social-distancing guidelines during the coronavirus crisis, said Valerie Frias, chief executive of Ethos, a Jamaica Plain nonprofit that runs the state’s largest Meals on Wheels program.

“People are afraid to go out," she said.

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Ethos typically delivers about 8,000 packaged meals daily to homes, shelters, community cafes at churches, senior centers, and other sites that normally offer programs such as music and speakers. With more than a dozen of them now shut temporarily, it has directed seniors to sites that have stayed open and converted to grab-and-go food service.

There has been no interruption in services so far. But as demand increases and senior sites such as adult day centers close, Frias said her organization expects to need more volunteers and building capacity for food preparation.

Some volunteers are now being reassigned from other Ethos programs to replace older drivers concerned about their health, she said. All new volunteer drivers will have to be trained and vetted according to state and city regulations.

“I don’t think we’ve hit the peak of this in Boston,” she said.

Ethos is one of 29 aging service access points across the state that use a network of paid drivers and volunteers to deliver about 9.3 million meal packages annually to about 83,000 seniors. All are adjusting to a fast-changing new reality caused by the spread of a virus putting older adults, and those with serious medical conditions, at higher risk.

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“We’re trying to adapt our current practices, and prepare for the next steps,” said Lisa Gurgone, executive director of Waltham-based Mass Home Care, which represents the groups that run the Meals on Wheels programs. “The goal is to continue to provide food to older adults who need it.”

Among other things, Gurgone said, the groups are reaching out to local schools that are preparing meals for delivery to students now in their homes to see if they can coordinate food preparation. Many of the sandwiches and other meals are still being prepared in the kitchens and cafeterias of senior centers and churches that have been closed to the public.

Gurgone said the programs are also looking into the possibility of delivering more frozen meals so the drivers don’t have to make daily stops. If demand continues to grow, she said, they may also seek to contract with caterers and restaurants that have shut down table service but still make deliveries.

In Boston, referral calls from senior housing complexes are on the rise. Ethos on Monday sent a Meals on Wheels team to an apartment building in the Fenway where they signed up 45 seniors who had formerly shopped for groceries.

“We’re going full-tilt, more than full-tilt,” Frias said. “We’re going to continue to serve the elderly population.”

Frias said drivers are taking new precautions in light of the public health emergency. While they typically check in and chat with residents, they’re trying to maintain a distance now and some are wearing gloves. Ethos has also begun tapping into its network of volunteers to help with deliveries.

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Demand is expected to increase further in Boston and statewide after President Trump and public health officials called on seniors in recent days to stay home as much as possible to prevent infections and slow the spread of the virus.

The virus is proving particularly challenging for homeless Bostonians who are having to keep moving in and out of shelters and are discouraged from congregating, depriving them of the daily social contact they previously had.

“It’s a very vulnerable population,” Frias said.

Frias was at the Cardinal Medeiros Center, a elder-only homeless shelter in the South End, helping to wipe down tables and other surfaces Tuesday. She also helped prepare and serve a traditional St. Patrick’s Day lunch of corned beef and cabbage for about 35 homeless people, all of whom were asked to wash their hands with sanitizer before the meal.

Boston’s homeless aren’t the only seniors at higher risk.

Frias said seniors in the city’s LGBTQ community, some of whom have weakened immune systems because of exposure to HIV, which causes AIDS, are also staying close to home and being especially careful to avoid large crowds.

“You’re seeing a lot of stresses on all the [social] systems,” Frias said.


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.