Delivering So Much More Than A Meal

A Conversation with our Q2 Community Partner, Meals on Wheels of Charlottesville/Albemarle
May 30, 2022

Hailey Peterson and Allie Dudley, Assistant Directors at Meals on Wheels of Charlottesville/Albemarle talk about food insecurity in the local homebound community, their network of over 600 volunteers, and how the organization came together to continue to provide services to their clients during the pandemic.

Plus, they told us about their plans for the next three to five years and how they hope to continue to grow and evolve to provide more services to even more people in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area.

Meals on Wheels of Charlottesville/Albemarle is a nonprofit organization that began in 1977. Their mission is to offer homebound neighbors a healthy meal, friendly social interactions, a reminder to eat or get out of bed, a safety check, and so much more.If you live in Charlottesville, you may have seen Meals on Wheels volunteers out delivering lunches. They serve 275 clients, five days a week. 

Most of their clients are on low or fixed incomes and are not able to pay for the services that Meals on Wheels provides. Meals on Wheels fully relies on contributions and partnerships within the community in order to keep their wheels turning.

Thank you to our amazing customers and guests at the winery who have helped us support Meals on Wheels since April 1, 2022. We are over halfway through the quarter and have received over 500 individual donations so far. Thank you for your generosity!

Finally, we are incredibly grateful to Hailey and Allie for sitting down with us to discuss the work they are doing in even more depth. It is our pleasure to share this conversation with you and hope you will get as much from it as we did.

The conversation took place on May 12, 2022 between Hailey Peterson and Allie Dudley of Meals on Wheels and Maggie Chao and Megan Taub from Eastwood. 

A Conversation with our Q2 Community Partner

 

Maggie Chao: Let’s start by talking about the history of Meals on Wheels and how it all began. How long has the Charlottesville/Albemarle chapter been operating?

Hailey Peterson: Since 1977

Maggie: And what did that look like in its infancy? Have those operations looked the same the entire time or has it evolved over the last 40+ years?

Hailey: From my understanding, it was initially started more to serve seniors. 

Allie Dudley: Yea, so we were operating out of a church basement completely run by eight volunteers. Four women started the organization and they had eight volunteers total. They were serving a small, select group of seniors. Then we grew and grew and grew to the point that we purchased our building and now we are serving…

Hailey: 275 clients!

Megan Taub: 275?! Wow!

Maggie: Who are you serving? I noticed on your website that you do not take federal funding because you want to expand your reach and be able to serve based on need but beyond just seniors. What communities is your organization touching?

Hailey: Right, If we were to accept federal funding we would primarily be serving individuals over the age of 65 who are homebound. We – as the Albemarle/Charlottesville office – decided that we would rather focus our energy towards all individuals who need our services who are homebound and are otherwise unable to get out to get food from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank and other organizations that focus on food insecurity. So because we have broadened the scope of the folks that we serve, we are unable to get access to those federal grants that we could otherwise receive. 

But it’s worth it. The need in the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County and even in other surrounding areas is so great that I think it was the best decision that we could have made. As a result, we are primarily funded by individuals, corporate sponsorships, and community partners.  

Maggie: I’ve noticed that on your wishlist on your website, you have everything from homemade birthday cards to shampoo. It made it pretty clear to me that Meals on Wheels is providing a service with a lot more depth than just a hot meal- which I think most people would associate it with. Could you paint us a broader picture of what those services really look like in practice? Because, obviously it’s not just food. 

Hailey: Yea, so we give birthday gifts and cards to our clients. We do holiday gifts. We are now offering an additional monthly shelf stable bag of food. It’s called our Bonus Pantry Pack Program, so we get food that is shelf stable from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank and then once a month we parse it out and deliver it to every one of our clients. And that’s in addition to the daily meals they receive. We also work with book mobiles so that our clients can get library services. 

We also do pet food. That’s a really big thing. We found that a lot of our clients who have pets were giving their meals to their animals, which isn’t good for the client or the animal. So we work to collect donations to provide them with cat or dog food depending on what their needs are. So yea, it’s pretty well rounded.

Maggie: It’s obvious that you take pride in serving healthy nutritious meals for your clients. It’s not just junk food. Could you tell us a little bit about where you source that food? And where and how you prepare it?

Hailey: The food comes from Morrisons, which operates out of UVa – the hospitals at UVa. It’s prepared by dietitians. Every meal is heart healthy…

Allie: …and sodium restricted, and we are able to provide meals for other types of diets. We have clients who are diabetic. We have clients who are vegetarian. Everything has been made to be as healthy and as fitting for our clients’ needs as possible.

We have a client who the other day had 4 teeth removed and she was saying she would have to stop getting meals for a while because she would only be able to eat smoothies and such and so I said “oh well we have pureed meals.” She was so happy that she would have something to eat while she was recovering. 

So we have people who go on pureed meals for a few days and others that need it for an extended period of time. We try to think of all the health restrictions that our clients might face and plan accordingly. 

Megan: I was curious. You mentioned that you partner regularly with the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. How does that work?

Allie: This is a new partnership that we just recently started. This is a program called The Reach Program. The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank receives funding for shelf stable bags of food and we are their conduit to be able to get it to the community. So they receive funding for the food and donate it to us and we then deliver it to clients in need. It’s kind of a perfect partnership, because they have the food, but they don’t have a way to get it to homebound clients. We are their vehicles. We’re their WHEELS. 😉

Hailey: Pun intended!

Allie: So those bags consist of everything from cereal and milk, so that our clients can have something to eat for breakfast, since we only deliver lunch. Vegetables, soup and tuna fish. We have found that the need for our clients to get this food is great. This is a direction that we are looking to expand further. A lot of our clients are needing food for dinner and other meals. This is a way that we can do more than provide a hot lunch which is only one of the three meals in a day. 

Megan: Of course you have to have a driver’s license and a car to volunteer, right? Do you also have to be a certain age?

Hailey: Actually, there are two different roles that you can fill when you volunteer, because some of our volunteers don’t have driver’s licenses. We have volunteers who walk in and help us pack all the food. That’s been really fantastic, so you don’t have to have a driver’s license if you can’t or do not feel comfortable driving. We do have a variety of roles that we would love to have filled. 

But as far as an age thing – as long as they are over the age of 16 or they are with a guardian, they are welcome to volunteer. We have a volunteer who comes in pretty frequently, who brings her daughter who I want to say is 6 or 7. She’s great. She’s lovely and we all love her. And she’s with her mom the whole time and that’s totally fine. So if you want to bring friends, kids, whomever with you, you are welcome to. The more the merrier. We love it – it gets more people involved. It gets more people to meet our clients and that’s always a great experience as well. 

Allie: We have drivers who delivered for many years with their young kids in tow and now their kids are old enough to have driver’s licenses and they come in and deliver on their own. It’s a multi-generational volunteering family. 🙂

And I think just from the perspective of our clients – they love seeing everyone. We have volunteers who bring their pets. They bring their dogs to come visit. And, of course, the volunteers who bring their children. It’s just- It’s a bright spot for our clients, who are homebound and don’t have a way to get out into the community and meet neighbors. 

Maggie: One more touch on volunteerism – my son, Wesley, and I were at your volunteer luncheon a couple of weeks ago and I noticed that there were folks who had been with you for a better part of the century. I mean- there was that one couple who had been there for 45 years. What, in your opinion, keeps bringing people back – and bringing them back so consistently and so fervently?

Hailey: I think it’s the connection that they are making to their community. I think a lot of people when they get involved in nonprofits, it’s because they want to make a difference. Right? And when you volunteer, often you do it because you want to feel more connected to whatever cause it may be. Often, you might not see the direct change that you’re making when you’re a volunteer. I think what’s unique about Meals On Wheels – you see the direct impact that you are making on that individual’s day. You’re making these connections with people. You’re having these conversations with your community members that really, you wouldn’t outside of this volunteer opportunity, because they’re unable to leave their homes. And so you’re meeting people who realistically could live two streets over from you and you get to have these wonderful interactions with people and I think that is what keeps people coming back. 

We have very dedicated volunteers who will call when there is a client who has been off of their route for a few days. Now, that might be because the client is visiting family, they might be in the hospital or they might have a surgery coming up (in which case our clients will let us know they don’t need our services for ‘x’ amount of days), but for our volunteers, if 2 or 3 days go by- we will get calls from volunteers saying “I have not seen this person and I am concerned, I just want to make sure they are doing ok. I have always loved talking with them. I put them last on my route sheet so we can have a nice chat together and I miss it. Where are they?” I mean, people really care and these are really impactful connections that they are making and I think that is the really wonderful thing that people keep coming back for. It’s cool. It’s really cool. 

“Being homebound wasn’t new for our clients.”

– Allie Dudley, Meals on Wheels

Maggie: How was your organization affected by the pandemic? Did this increase the need? Did it decrease your availability or ability to serve your clients? 

Allie: In the beginning of the pandemic when everyone was panicking and we didn’t know what this was going to mean for our country, we decided to provide two weeks of shelf stable food every two weeks for a few months. Then we opened up in a different capacity. We used to have our volunteers go into our clients homes and sit with them and chat. And, now we have taken more of a friendly distance with masks. Our mission is three fold. Right? We are delivering a healthy meal – a hot lunch – but we are also doing wellness checks, in addition to just providing friendship to our clients. While we were closed for the first little while we started a phone tree for our clients. Just to talk, right? Just so they had someone to talk to and to try to brighten their day, because they weren’t getting their daily visit from our volunteers. The phone tree continued until we were back to delivering face-to-face every day. Then we were just meeting them outside, on their porch with a six feet distance. And now, with masks and the science that shows that masks truly do work, we are able to meet a bit more and not just at such a distance. But I know that some of those phone tree connections are still intact. I know that It just shows the power of our volunteers and how dedicated they were and how willing they were to change how we have done things to make sure that our folks got meals and were taken care of. 

Hailey: Regardless of what your stance is about how the COVID situation was handled or how you feel about masks or whatever – everyone can kind of agree that we need to be safer around the population that we serve. Everyone was very on board with taking all of the necessary precautions around making sure that our clients were safe and comfortable and that they felt comfortable with us visiting them, which was wonderful. And a lot of the changes that were put in place are still in place. We still do require masks and somewhat of a distance. 

And, I agree with you, Allie – our volunteer base has been incredibly compassionate and really adaptable and truly amazing in a very precarious time. 

Allie: And, in an effort to think about our clients who are homebound, when the vaccines came out they weren’t able to go get vaccines in many cases so we worked with the health department and piloted their at-home vaccine mobile clinic and they went to our client’s homes and were able to give them vaccines at home – for those who wanted them of course. We are continually trying to think of our clients as the whole individual rather than just someone who needs lunch – clearly it’s bigger than that, the picture is bigger. 

Maggie: That’s amazing. And it sounds like it strengthened your community and kind of solidified it in a way rather than breaking it down and it is clearly a testament to your strong staffing team and volunteerism. Did it affect your donations at all?

Allie: Definitely. In the beginning, everyone was very generous and, of course, still has been. We have always been completely community funded. I think we had no idea how generous people would become at the beginning of the pandemic when they really realized what it is to be homebound and how it’s not new for our clients – being homebound is their reality on a daily basis. 

It has tapered off now some – just a little bit, but the community has really stepped up in a way that we are blown away by consistently. Plus, we have fostered new relationships with other nonprofits in the community. The county government has given us money for the first time. So, we have been really lucky that we not only survived the pandemic, but, I think, thrived in our ability to continue to provide our services. 

Maggie: That’s amazing, that’s amazing. Speaking a little more to your needs, what would you say are your greatest areas of need? Of course donations are always helpful. Volunteerism is always helpful and necessary, but for someone reading this interview, what is the best and most fruitful way that they can be helpful to you and your organization?

Allie: I think you kind of touched on it. Volunteering and fundraising. Because if you can’t give your time, you can always give money. And, if you can’t donate your time, it takes $1500 a year to sponsor one client. You can break that down of course into fewer months. Whatever you can give, It makes a huge difference. We are trying to serve more of the Charlottesville and Albemarle area. Volunteering and fundraising is always much needed.

Hailey: And we are right in the middle of our Spring Appeal for May, so we are trying to raise enough money to sponsor 38 of our clients who live 150% or more below the federal poverty line. We don’t want them to decide between meals and power or meals and medical bills. So we are trying to completely cover their payments for Meals on Wheels so that is one less thing they have to worry about. So yea, that would be incredibly helpful too. 

“The need is great. We currently have a waitlist and are unable to serve more than we are right now.”

– Hailey Peterson, Meals on Wheels

Megan: I have a couple of questions about the client base. So you have about 275 clients that you serve now. Is that right? 

Allie and Hailey: Mhmm

Megan: How often are you getting applications for new clients? How often are you taking new clients? Do you think that there are a number of people in the community who might need these services, but they aren’t applying? They might not know about these services? Or perhaps they are just disconnected in some way like they don’t have a computer or internet, you know, all those pieces of it? Maybe I’ll start there.

Hailey: Yea. We do. The need is great. We currently have a waiting list because we are at capacity. Staffing wise, with our building, we are just unable to serve more than we have right now. Because of that we do have a wait list. We are constantly getting people who are interested.

Allie: Every day, I would say. 

Hailey: Every day, we’re getting an application. 

Allie: Or a referral – you don’t have to go online, you can just call in. 

Hailey: And, I would say a lot of the ways that people hear about us are because they were referred to us by a family member or by word of mouth. They might know a neighbor that has been receiving it. They might see one of our volunteers out and they ask about it. But you’re right. It is difficult, because a lot of them might not have access to ways to go online and find us. So we know there are people who rely on community based ways to find our services. 

But the need is great. And, there is a huge number of people who are outside the bounds of Albemarle County who we cannot serve. Our client population is ever growing. 

Megan: It’s eye opening to talk to you both. Many might not often see someone who is homebound and might not think about that as an area of need. It stops me in my tracks a bit to listen to you all and think about how many homebound people there are in our community and how much they benefit from the services that Meals on Wheels provides. Which brings me to wonder – if you are seeing a lot of people who are applying and you are not able to take – are you considering ways to expand or should someone else or another nonprofit be coming in and doing that? I am just thinking about what we can do and wanting to continually make sure that we as individuals – Maggie and I – and as a business are doing everything we can to support our local community. 

Allie: Can I just say how incredible that is. I don’t think that a lot of business owners think in that way. We have been so overwhelmed by your generosity and your giving spirit. And have been honored to be working with you all because your compassion truly shines through. So thank you for that!

Hailey: Yes, thank you!

Allie: But I think that we are lucky to be in Charlottesville. We have quite a few nonprofits who are all working towards the same goal. So the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, The Emergency Food Network, Loaves & Fishes. We are all working together and Robin, our Executive Director, is constantly meeting with their executive directors to try to come together and figure out the best things we can do to serve the clients in need. We are also working with PACEM, which is an organization that works to house the homeless in our community. And so we are working directly with the new community that they have set up and we are feeding them in their new homes. So we are constantly working and fostering relationships in order to help even more. 

And we are in the middle of a strategic plan! Hailey, I’m sorry if I took your thunder on this one. We are in the middle of strategic planning so that we can come up with a three to five year plan and goals so not only can we continue helping all of our clients that we have been, but to see how we can help even more and on a bigger scale. So we are working toward that to see what the future will entail and how to keep becoming bigger and better and helping more people.

Megan: It’s really impressive what you are doing. Thank you for talking through all of this with us. We know, I mean we’ve had an opportunity to talk with you a few times, Allie, and so we know a bit about Meals on Wheels, but this just paints an even more vibrant picture of what it’s like and what you do – it just brings it all to life and helps us to see what we can continue to do to get the word out and how we can support you in your work. 

Maggie: What you are doing is so so incredible. It’s been an honor and a delight. 

Megan: And I think this is our last question, is there anything else that you would like to tell us about Meals on Wheels and your efforts in the community? 

Hailey: I know Allie really briefly touched on it, but we are actively working together and with other organizations in our community to best figure out how we can serve this hidden hungry population and in the next 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, figuring out what our resources truly are and setting goals for this organization so that we can be the best for our clients that we can be. And, a lot of that is thanks to the amazing people in our community who are funding us. We would not exist if not for both our volunteers and our donors – as an organization that doesn’t get any federal funding, we truly rely so heavily on our community to provide for our community and we are just really thankful – for them, for you guys, for this conversation, so thank you!

If you would like to donate or volunteer for Meals on Wheels of Charlottesville/Albemarle, visit Meals on Wheels’ website:

Or, donate at Eastwood through the end of June.

When you visit our tasting rooms through the end of June, you also will have an opportunity to round up the cents on your bill or to donate an amount of your choosing. All donations go directly to Meals on Wheels. Thank you for your support!

Your chance to win!

$5 raffle tickets are on sale now for a chance to win one of two $50 Eastwood Gift Cards.
The winner will be announced at the end of June.