Meals on Wheels of Texoma has had to revamp nearly its whole process of delivering meals to those in need during the coronavirus pandemic.
The need for meals is rising and is the highest it has been in nearly two years, according to CEO Greg Pittman.
Meals on Wheels of Texoma serves Grayson, Fannin and Cooke counties and while both the risk and reliance on delivered food is growing, Pittman said from the very beginning of the pandemic, the priority has always been to continue service to those in need.
“We don’t want anyone to go hungry,” Pittman said. “Despite the social distancing rules, we had to find a way to see our clients every day that protected our volunteers. We had to figure out how we could serve food that protected everybody. We took the advice and purchased boxes and boxes of T-shirt bags like you’d see at Walmart.
“We spent all night burning the midnight oil adjusting a solution to find a way to get our volunteers the food without touching and we have a similar solution with the home delivery program.”
One of the first things Pittman did after the COVID-19 outbreak was reach out to the agency’s board of directors to determine the next steps to take. Several of the board members are county judges, including Cooke County judge Jason Brinkley.
“I was asking about his plans,” Pittman said. “He was very clear that they didn’t want any services cut. He said if we had to cut any services due to cost, for me to let him know and the county would do what it could to help us continue services. We’ve had nothing but very clear, consistent communication with Cooke County throughout this whole crisis.”
While the congregate program was forced to shut down due to social distancing rules, the delivering of meals went forward. The program delivers to 187 people in Cooke County, or about a thousand meals per week.
At first, the program ran out of disposable gloves, which threatened its ability to continue delivering meals. Then, it had to get creative with hand sanitizer.
“We called a liquor store and bought a couple cases of Everclear and we have some friends at Family Pharmacy of Pottsboro and Axtell Pharmacy of Whitesboro that were willing to take the alcohol and watered it down to the recommended amount and mixed it with thickener at no cost,” Pittman said. “We had to pay for the containers, but it could have cost us a bunch of money.”
Iron Root Distillery in Denison donated 10 gallons of 92% hand sanitizer to the program. Pittman said there has been a concerted effort to educate its volunteers on the importance of staying safe, especially considering the age of most of their clientele.
“The training was probably the hardest part because the nature of volunteers was changing,” Pittman said. “It’s not enough to wear a pair of gloves. Every single stop, as soon as you get out of that car, you have to hand sanitize, put on gloves then take off gloves and hand sanitize before getting back in the car. We had to be very adamant about following that procedure.”
Pittman said there has been a huge uptick in calls for meals in recent weeks and not just from the elderly.
“We work off a referral basis and usually it’s a government agency like health and human services or Texoma Area Agency on Aging that have their own managers that screen seniors for a host of different services,” Pittman said. “Some weeks we get a lot of referrals, and some we don’t, but we’ve got a lot of people calling that are atypical of our regular client. We hope that will be relatively short term.”
Pittman said Meals on Wheels does more than just feed people in need.
“Some people look at us as just delivering a hot meal, but it’s as much about checking on that person to see how they’re doing and see if there is a change in their condition,” Pittman said. “The families and clients we serve tell us that they love the food, but they really enjoy knowing that trained volunteer is checking in on them that day to make sure they aren’t injured.”
Pittman lauded Gainesville Meals on Wheels manager Kathy White for her tireless commitment to the program.
“She’s the most independent manager we have,” Pittman said. “We have to actually encourage her to tell us more. They just go with the flow and find a way to make it all work. Cooke County from a population perspective is the least dense. It inherently has more distance per capita. We haven’t had a mad rush of new requests like we’ve seen in Fannin or Grayson, but we have seen an uptick.”
Despite the economy starting to open back up at Gov. Greg Abbott’s recommendations, Pittman said the program will continue to operate with the same precautionary measures with the goal of safety in mind for everyone involved.
“By June 1, every one of our clients should have an additional two weeks worth of meals over and above as a safety net for whatever may come,” Pittman said. “We want to learn from this experience and we’re fortunate that we didn’t miss any service. I want to make sure that we can get those two weeks worth of meals to all our clients and hopefully we can get back to a normal state as quickly and safely as possible.”