The Rainier Foothills Wellness Foundation (RFWF) has revived its senior hot meals program, once again delivering warm, homemade meals to seniors thrice-weekly around the Enumclaw area.
While the meals are the reason for the visit, the extra company is a chance for volunteers to socialize with the seniors and check up on them, said Sara Stratton, executive director of the RFWF.
The Senior Hot Meals program is one part of the Wellness Foundation’s Neighbors feeding Neighbors initiative, which aims to help people experiencing hunger on the Plateau.
“One thing the pandemic taught us is that the value of our feeding programs is so much more than the food we serve. It’s that human connection. … They really build a relationship.”
Preparing and delivering the food is a production that starts at the Enumclaw Senior Center’s kitchens. That’s where RFWF employee Sandy Merrill and her team of nine volunteer cooks prepare the food. Another nine volunteers drive them out to the seniors along three different routes.
Merrill has been involved with the program for about seven years and it’s sole employee. She plans each month’s menu, shops for the groceries and leads the kitchen in getting the meals to the seniors.
Why does she do it? The knowledge that “we feed people in town here that normally wouldn’t get fed,” Merrill said.
“It’s a home-cooked meal,” she said. “It puts something nice and warm in their stomach. … And our drivers get to see them and interact with them. Sometimes, (the drivers) are all they see all day long.”
The seniors get meals delivered Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and each delivery includes a meal to be refrigerated for the next day.
They get so much food that by Sunday, the one day there isn’t a meal planned, many of the seniors probably still have leftovers to chow down on, Merrill said.
Monday, Oct. 11, Merrill and her team made 51 meals, enough for the roughly 25 seniors receiving deliveries that day. The average is 60 to 65 meals, but the numbers vary because the seniors sometimes aren’t available or don’t need the meals on a certain day.
“Tonight they’re getting meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy and peas,” Merrill said. “Tomorrow, they’re getting a quiche, tomato soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, a jello cup and baked apples.”
They plan to make full Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the seniors too, as well as the senior’s relatives.
Three Enumclaw area residents getting meals that day shared with the Courier-Herald how the program affects their lives.
Lifelong Enumclaw resident Marlene Smith, who introduces herself as “Grandma Marlene,” said her vision isn’t great, and cooking is a challenge: “I’m liable to chop my finger off just as easy as I’m chopping the celery.”
Rather than fumble around in the kitchen, Smith, 89, is happy to get delivered the same kinds of food she’d be making for herself.
“They’re always happy and friendly, and they give me a perk up for the rest of the day just talking with them,” she said, adding: “I enjoy the people that bring the stuff as much as I do the food. I look forward to their company for that little bit.”
It’s a lot of work for Edward Phillips, a retired UPS controller, to get from his chair to his wheelchair, up the ramp from his living room and all the way to his kitchen.
Phillips, who is 77 years old, says of his age: “I’m trying to go backwards, but they won’t let me.”
But through the hot meals program, “every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I get to see great, different people, (and) I get great food, and I get extra portions because Sandy likes to feed you well,” Phillips said.
The volunteers are “marvelous, super friendly conversationalists,” he said: “They get to know you, you get to know them.”
Cindy Adams, who is Phillip’s helper, said the program has been a “big help” in taking care of Phillips, who can’t cook on his own anymore. He also uses the RFWF’s Care-A-Van service to get around town.
A retired engineer and former operator of Ly-Line products in Enumclaw, 92-year-old Hugh Lyman still makes weekly trips to Safeway. He fixes his own breakfast but takes the hot meal deliveries for lunch each day.
“It’s great for me, because I can only stand on my feet for a few minutes, long enough to fix some cereal in the morning,” Lyman said.
Lyman said of program’s volunteers are “the absolute greatest in the world.”
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year forced changes to the program.
Social distancing restrictions made it a challenge to cook in the Senior Center kitchen space, so around March 2020 volunteers switched to delivering one hot meal and five days of frozen meals on client’s porches each week, in an effort to reduce contacts while keeping the meals coming.
“We couldn’t really interact with the clients,” Merrill said.
At the same time, their number of clients “skyrocketed” because the program teamed up to also deliver meals to the regulars who got their lunches at the Senior Center, Stratton said.
The RFWF restarted delivering the thrice-weekly hot meals in July this year and is back to their regular client level. Most of the volunteers came back, and a few new people joined them for cooking and deliveries.
Now, the Senior Hot Meals program is looking for more hungry mouths to feed and more donors to keep the meals coming, Stratton said.
Stratton said the program can currently handle about five more seniors. Those interested can contact the RFWF at 360-802-3206. (To be eligible, a senior must be limited in their ability to get out to get groceries or to prepare food at home.)
The RFWF has $95,359 budgeted for the program for their fiscal year that started this October, and around two-thirds of the cost goes toward the food. The program is funded roughly equally between individual donations and grants, Stratton said.
One senior’s meals cost $30 per week, she said, and donors who are willing to sponsor the monthly cost of a senior’s meals — $127 — can also sign up to be pen pals with that senior.