Meals on Wheels provides nourishment, companionship, wellness check

New London — Vera Martell has family to check in on her, but the 97-year-old looks forward to visits four days a week from Jack Elkins, who brings her Meals on Wheels.

Elkins, who retired from his position as head of criminal investigations at Electric Boat, works for Thames Valley Council for Community Action, delivering meals to many of the 113 over-60, home-bound seniors in New London who participate in the elderly nutrition program that mostly is funded with federal dollars.

Martell waits for Elkins' late-morning knock on the door, and for the food and conversation he brings.

On this day he carries meatballs, penne pasta and green beans in a sealed, TV-dinner-like tray. Elkins puts it in Martell's refrigerator, and she explains she will heat it up in the microwave later and have it for her dinner.

She's drinking coffee and watching birds at the feeders in her backyard when Elkins arrives, and the two fall into easy banter as he asks how she's doing and comments on the rainy weather.

Across America every day, similar scenes play out as nearly 2.4 million seniors get a nutritious meal — and in many cases the independence they crave — by participating in the 63-year-old program that started in Philadelphia and supporters boast has grown into one of the largest and most effective social movements in the country.

It's not just a hot meal that the program delivers, but the opportunity for a well-being check. Many of the recipients have chosen to live in their homes for as long as possible, and the sustenance and daily visit help make that possible.

Elkins knows the habits and routines of the seniors he delivers to, and calls TVCCA when someone doesn't answer the door or he suspects that something is amiss. TVCCA in turn calls a relative or, if necessary, emergency services.

"I know my people," said Elkins, who has been on the job three years. "I know when something isn't right."

TVCCA runs Meals on Wheels in eastern Connecticut, part of its senior nutrition program that also sends prepared meals to senior centers and other sites where the more mobile elderly gather for lunch on weekdays.

For TVCCA, which has run the eastern Connecticut program since 1974, it's what Deborah Monahan, the executive director, calls "a complicated, complex" system of funding and bureaucracy that fuels the program that feeds the elderly. Statewide, there are about 22,661 participants, with about 1,100 of them in eastern Connecticut served by TVCCA. Of that 1,100, more than 800 get their meals at home.

A big chunk of the money for senior nutrition — about 42 percent — comes through the Older Americans Act from the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which, despite a widespread misconception, was not targeted in the Trump administration's first budget proposal released last month.

But some municipalities, including New London, make their contribution toward the elderly eating program with federal Community Development Block Grants, which the Trump administration is considering eliminating.

New London Mayor Michael Passero said his city has no other discretionary funds and will be at a loss if CDBG funding is cut at the federal level. While TVCCA requested $45,000 in funding from the city, the mayor said the City Council is considering an allocation of just under $21,000 in its latest budget deliberations.

"It's an important program," Passero said. "Aside from feeding people, it's a well-being check. It's a lifeline. What I've learned is that, for a lot of elderly in the city, it's the only well-being check they get."

$3 a meal

TVCCA gets about $1.3 million annually in federal funds that are channeled through the state and then Senior Resources Inc., and raises another $500,000 through private and municipal donations and fundraisers. It will host its annual Meals on Wheels benefit at the Uncas Ballroom at Mohegan Sun on May 20, a required and important revenue source, Monahan said.

Statewide, Connecticut gets about $6.7 million in federal funds, according to Meals on Wheels America, and spends, with additional donations, about $15.8 million annually. It served more than 2 million meals last year, including both home deliveries and at meal centers.

Food recipients are not required to pay or make a donation, but they are asked for $3 for every meal they receive. In reality, administrators said few contribute. The actual cost of a meal, including purchasing, preparation and delivery, is about $11, according to Maraiah Popeleski, TVCCA's director of nutrition services.

But the seniors do appreciate the meals and for Elkins, who delivers to the home-bound in New London, the job has been an eye-opener to how few resources some elderly have.

"It is paramount that they get this food," he said. "Sometimes, when I put the food away, it's all they have in their freezer."

Diane Word is on Elkins' route and breaks out in a big, happy smile when she opens her door to find him standing on her porch with a bag of food in hand.

"I love it," she said of the meals she receives. "I enjoy the food. I love it."

And her thoughts about Elkins, "He's a very good worker. He does a very good job. He's excellent."

In addition to the meals, including a second frozen tray of food that they can microwave later, participants get a carton of milk, whole-wheat bread and margarine.

Tom Cowart is on Elkins' route and he said his favorite meal is the omelets: cheese or Western.

Pot roast and carrots 

Meals are prepared at TVCCA's commissary in Bozrah, where five chefs are employed to make the dinners that must comply with federal senior nutritional guidelines.

Head chef Devin Brooks said they try to use herbs to compensate for low sodium requirements and always are searching for new and different options, like chicken sausage rather than the traditional pork. His team also works to make the food trays attractive and colorful.

Chef Tom Campbell was preparing paprika roasted potatoes to go with pot roast and carrots. Nearby, a massive vat of chicken stew was simmering.

All home-delivery meals are prepared in Bozrah, packaged, frozen and then within a few days sent to senior centers, where they are heated and then delivered.

The TVCCA provides Meals on Wheels in 39 towns in eastern Connecticut, from the rural Northeast corner down to the more populated shoreline. The municipalities with the largest numbers of participants are Norwich, with 153, and New London, with 113.

Virginia Hamler, 84, lives beside her son in a duplex in the city, but he's off at work during the day, so she's always pleased when Elkins arrives at her door.

"He always makes me feel good," she said. "He's thoughtful and considerate and kind. And I'm not able to get out much, so I like the company."

She tells him about the recent death of a relative and Elkins expresses his sympathies.

"I'm lucky to have this program, and to have him," she said. "I like that he checks on me."

Editor's Note: This article corrects of the former occupation of Jack Elkins.

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