Organizations that provide services to seniors are rethinking how to safely provide meals and other services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many community groups rely largely on older volunteers, many of whom are in the high-risk category for COVID-19, said Kristi Kane, director of the Arrowhead Area Agency on Aging, which is why organizations around the Northland are putting out calls for help.

"We need younger healthy people who have not traveled recently to provide services," Kane said.

Arrowhead Area Agency on Aging can connect people interested in volunteering to organizations that serve seniors, like Volunteer Services of Carlton County, the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency and Community Partners Two Harbors, Kane said.

The AEOA is seeking volunteers for its food delivery programs, like Meals on Wheels, which delivers ready-made meals to homebound seniors.

Max Jazdzewski, 11, and Marcus Mullins, 12, loads food into the back of a car while the Second Harvest Mobile Food Pantry was in Cloquet on Thursday. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal
Max Jazdzewski, 11, and Marcus Mullins, 12, loads food into the back of a car while the Second Harvest Mobile Food Pantry was in Cloquet on Thursday. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal

Kathie Irish, assistant director for the AEOA's senior food and nutrition services, said that volunteers who have returned to the area after residing elsewhere for the winter have been asked to hold off on helping out. It's a precautionary measure to prevent spreading the virus to clients.

"So we are looking for some additional volunteers," Irish said. "We have really gotten a lot of calls from folks willing to help out with whatever. The one good thing that's come about because of all this is so many people have stepped up. So this may increase our volunteer pool."

Irish said a few volunteers have also dropped out due to concern for their own health, adding that there's a mix of volunteers leaving and joining.

The plan moving forward is to continue delivering meals to people's homes without entering, and while wearing single-use gloves, Irish said.

Food service worker Ginger Clement boxes up frozen meals Friday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Food service worker Ginger Clement boxes up frozen meals Friday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"We are trying to do everything we can to make sure folks still get food, we want to keep them healthy through good nutrition," Irish said. "But we really need to monitor and make sure we're using safe handling practices."

The same practices are used when carrying out other programs, too, like frozen meal deliveries and weekly grocery runs to seniors.

Senior meals are still offered through AEOA, but they are just for pickup only. Since the city of Duluth closed its buildings to the public, a few sites have closed. Seniors can pick up meals at the Lincoln Park and Faith Haven apartments, both in Duluth.

The region's food bank, Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank, which donates food to 180 nonprofits in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin, provides food to approximately 44,000 people around the region, including seniors.

"We’re trying to determine the needs of our region’s agency partners — food shelves, soup kitchens and shelters — and the increased demand we’re all facing," said Shaye Moris, executive director of Second Harvest, noting that it includes social distancing, maintaining volunteers as well as facility and personal hygiene.

Similar to what AEOA's experiencing, some volunteers with the food bank have chosen or been asked to pull back, which is why the food bank's asking for young and healthy volunteers to help.

Lonny Royer, a volunteer driver with Meals on Wheels and Senior Dining, prepares to load both hot and frozen meals into his vehicle Friday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Lonny Royer, a volunteer driver with Meals on Wheels and Senior Dining, prepares to load both hot and frozen meals into his vehicle Friday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"As we're ramping up the service we want to provide, we're going to need additional volunteers," Moris said.

With people emptying shelves at grocery stores around the nation, Moris said that could affect the food bank's ability to rescue unpurchased foods at stores like Walmart, Target, Super One Foods and the Whole Foods Co-op.

"It's likely there could be a decline in supplies that are surplus, which is what we depend on," Moris said. "(That) might mean that we have to purchase more products, which is something we don't normally do a lot of, but we will have to fill the gap."

Over the past week, the food bank's been working to source additional food for food shelves.

One service the food bank offers is its Nutrition Assistance Program for Seniors (NAPS), which supplies boxes of food to about 850 seniors each month.

Participants must be 60 years old or older, live in Minnesota and be income-eligible, Moris said. There are 23 sites in the region where food boxes can be picked up. Seniors have the option of having someone they know or a volunteer deliver the boxes to their homes.

Moris said it's difficult to predict if the distribution number will increase the next time NAPS distribution occurs in April, and plans are changing daily as the organization adapts to challenges arising due to COVID-19.

Head cook Chuck Dreher prepares a meal for the Meals on Wheels program Friday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Head cook Chuck Dreher prepares a meal for the Meals on Wheels program Friday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Seniors encompass about one-third of the food bank's mobile food pantry, which provides food to more than 300 people every month in Cloquet, as well as Hurley and Solon Springs, Wisconsin.

"We could definitely anticipate an increase of the mobiles," Moris said.

Moris said the food bank will be watching how the pandemic impacts the community's most vulnerable neighbors and those living paycheck-to-paycheck.

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