KASSON — About 80 or so meals a day leave Sunwood Manor in Kasson, all to keep seniors healthy and fed across Dodge County.

"The people we serve, they're in Kasson, Byron, Mantorville, Dodge Center, Claremont and West Concord," said Kelly Scott, who operates the Meals on Wheels program in Dodge County.

Before COVID-19 hit, the organization had about 65 to 75 clients, but that number is up, closer to 85 or 90 these days, she said. And with that increased need has been a need to find volunteers who will drive meals out to clients who can't get out to feed themselves.

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That includes the residents of Sunwood Manor, the elder living facility in Kasson. Residents used to come down to the dining room and get served, along with members of the outside community who came to enjoy camaraderie at the congregant dining facility.

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For now, those days are over.

Jeff Wyatt, director of senior dining for SEMCAC, which operates Meals on Wheels and other nutrition programs for Dodge, Mower, Fillmore, Houston and Winona counties in Southeast Minnesota, said the organization offered congregant senior dining at locations in several counties, but those sites were reduced to curbside pickup only beginning last March. Many of those diners have transferred to the Meals on Wheels program.

Randy Scott makes a meal delivery to Milo Bjergum in Kasson for Meals on Wheels Monday, March 9, 2021. "They are doing a heck of a job," said Bjergum. "I like interacting with the people," said Scott. "You make their day." (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach)
Randy Scott makes a meal delivery to Milo Bjergum in Kasson for Meals on Wheels Monday, March 9, 2021. "They are doing a heck of a job," said Bjergum. "I like interacting with the people," said Scott. "You make their day." (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach)

"A lot of our Meals on Wheels routes increased," he said. "We’ve been very fortunate that we haven’t lost a lot of our volunteers. Most have stuck with us. And a lot of people in a lot of these small communities really stepped up."

Wyatt added that staff from congregant dining facilities have pivoted to driving delivery routes when needed.

SEMCAC has seen an increase of about 95,000 meals served since the start of COVID-19, he said, up from about 200,000 meals annually. That has been driven by an increase of about 1,200 clients during the past year.

Need more volunteers

While Wyatt said SEMCAC's Meals on Wheels programs have enough drivers, that's not the case everywhere in Southeast Minnesota.

Carla Pearson, Older Adult Services coordinator for Three Rivers Community Action, which provides Meals on Wheels and other services for Wabasha and Goodhue counties, said her organization needs volunteer drivers in both Wanamingo and Cannon Falls to support the Meals on Wheels program.

"What we’ve had to do is we’ve had staff from our office deliver," she said. "It’s difficult to sustain a program when the community doesn’t support it."

Pearson said she's made appeals to service organizations and churches, but has had a hard time finding enough volunteers to give some of her regular volunteers a break.

"You don't want to burn them out," she said. "If we lose a volunteer, we're in trouble."

Meals made and packed at Sunwood Manor in Kasson are ready to be delivered for Meals on Wheels Monday, March 9, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach)
Meals made and packed at Sunwood Manor in Kasson are ready to be delivered for Meals on Wheels Monday, March 9, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach)

Tonja Ziemann, Senior Independence Program assistant for Family Service Rochester, which operates the Meals on Wheels program for Rochester and Stewartville, said when COVID-19 hit, people in the community saw the need and stepped up. Plus, with some people working from home or working less, they volunteered to drive for Meals on Wheels.

"More people came forward during the crisis to drive for us," Ziemann said. "But we always need drivers or substitute drivers."

Ziemann said for a while FSR's Meals on Wheels increased because they were supplying food to temporary homeless shelters two times a day up to January. Still, even without those clients, the program has seen an increase. For example, in February 2020, FSR served less than 100 customers in Rochester. Now that number is closer to 135.

While FSR delivers seven days a week in Rochester, SEMCAC and Three Rivers offer a noon hot meal Mondays through Fridays. Three Rivers has even added a second cold lunch option due to food insecurity issues.

Since the start of the pandemic, Pearson said they've seen a 35 percent increase in meals served. Because volunteers often use their lunch hours to deliver meals, Three Rivers limits its service to city limits except in Mazeppa, where most of the population is rural.

Will the vaccine help?

Pearson said even with the vaccine, she doesn't believe her Meals on Wheels numbers will go back to pre-COVID-19 levels.

"I think we’ll go down a little bit," she said. "Some people go off the program in the spring because there's no ice on the roads, so they can go to the store. But we have some snowbirds coming back, too."

Many new clients have appreciated the addition of good nutrition in their lives, Pearson said.

Randy Scott makes a food delivery to a home in Kasson for Meals on Wheels Monday, March 9, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach)
Randy Scott makes a food delivery to a home in Kasson for Meals on Wheels Monday, March 9, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach)

Ziemann agreed that the numbers will likely go down a bit once more seniors are vaccinated, but many new clients are probably signed up for Meals on Wheels for the long haul.

How much the need for Meals on Wheels returns to pre-COVID levels, though, is anyone's guess.

"That is going to be the big question, whether they feel comfortable coming out," Wyatt said. "That's the big unknown for us."