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Feeding the community during COVID-19

A local nonprofit addressing regional food insecurity is adapting to the safety precautions and other turbulent changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Suffolk Meals on Wheels Inc. delivers nutritious meals to homebound residents in Suffolk and Isle of Wight County. The organization is based at Sentara Obici Hospital, and their meals are prepared under the supervision of a registered dietitian at Sentara Obici Food Services Department, as well as a registered dietitian with Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia.

The majority of these clients are ages 60 and older, along with younger people that may have been recently released from hospitals and people with disabilities. As of Monday, Suffolk Meals on Wheels Inc. serves approximately 133 clients, and more people have reached out for their services during the pandemic, according to Executive Director Angelica Yankauskas.

Yankauskas wrote in an email Monday that they’ve served about six more people since the pandemic began.

“We have had to refer many who are in need of financial assistance to other agencies, (and) we have noticed an increase in calls from clients living in rural areas due to lack of food assistance, as they are in a ‘food desert’,” she wrote.

Meal deliveries are conducted solely by volunteers Monday through Friday each week. In many cases, they’re the main source of daily social contact for people who would otherwise be alone, and the volunteers can check up on these clients who may need more assistance on any given day.

But the volunteers have been forced to change how they care for these homebound individuals, due to COVID-19 concerns.

Yankauskas said in a phone interview Monday that they’ve instituted “low contact to no contact” deliveries to keep both clients and volunteers safe. Volunteers package the meals inside plastic bags and place the meals at clients’ front doors. Then they ring the doorbell and wait to see the client collect their food.

This is not nearly as personable as Suffolk Meals on Wheels Inc. strives to be under normal circumstances. Volunteers were previously able to greet clients, ask them how they were doing, and find out if they needed anything else. But now they have to keep their distance for everyone’s safety.

The good news is that Suffolk Meals on Wheels Inc. is able reach out to clients’ emergency contacts, in case they need any further assistance, and partner with Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia in Norfolk to meet their needs.

“Not being able to have the level of contact that we are used to has probably been our biggest change,” Yankauskas wrote, “and it’s one of the aspects of our service we’ve been trying to work around more efficiently.”

Another issue they’ve been working on is keeping a well-staffed volunteer force. Most of their volunteers are actually seniors themselves, Yankauskas said, and to keep them safe others have had to step up to deliver meals.

Suffolk Meals on Wheels has partnered with Volunteer Hampton Roads to connect with potential volunteers. Their volunteer force is now composed of those currently out of work, teleworkers, local church groups, businesses, community partners, individuals and students, with roughly 250 volunteers as of Monday.

Short-term volunteers are being accepted during this pandemic, specifically those under the age of 60 with no medical issues. But the nonprofit is open to anyone who feels they are not at high risk or more susceptible to COVID-19, Yankauskas wrote.

“We want to make sure our older volunteers are safe and that they’re not putting themselves in harm’s way if they are high risk,” she wrote.

People can also donate to support Suffolk Meals on Wheels Inc., which has been another hurdle for Yankauskas and her team during this pandemic.

Like most other nonprofits, Suffolk Meals on Wheels has not been able to hold face-to-face fundraisers that would typically support their efforts. The organization receives neither state nor federal funding for its operating budget, and instead relies on payments from clients, donations from individuals, businesses and organizations, and grants.

“We are not the only nonprofit in the area that’s going through in-person fundraising woes, but that’s a concern for us right now,” Yankauskas wrote. “Fundraising is a very large component of what we do, and right now we’re not able to do that in person.”

In spite of these hardships, Yankauskas is hoping to raise more awareness of food insecurity in the region, which has become more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic. This systemic problem isn’t going to end when COVID-19 cases subside.

“I’m hoping that this is raising awareness to a cyclical issue that’s bigger than what we’re going through right now, in terms of the dangers of social isolation and food insecurity. We pride ourselves on being a Meals on Wheels America partner to combat these problems and all the issues that go hand in hand with them,” she wrote.

Visit suffolkmealsonwheels.com for more information, including how to make a donation, or to apply for a volunteer position. The nonprofit is also participating in “Give Local 757,” and donations can be made directly to Suffolk Meals on Wheels Inc. at givelocal757.org, or on suffolkmealsonwheels.com.