Volunteers make Meals on Wheels program a reality

By Tucker Henderson


Partaking in a hot meal is something many people in the region take for granted on a daily basis. Everybody needs to eat, but what about those who just aren’t quite as able bodied as they used to be?

The Meals on Wheels program through the New York Mills Senior Citizen’s Center has been providing hot and frozen meals to those individuals in the community for over 40 years. Eunice Rantala was the first manager in 1980 when the program began and cooking was done on site by Hilma Tisdell and Linda Maunumaki.

“The program is through Nutritional Services, Incorporated,” said Senior Citizen’s Center director, Louise Amberg-Jokela. “We get our food from Perham Health, they contracted through them. We have a runner go every day and pick it up.”

Amberg-Jokela said that the group needs a “vast amount of volunteers” to keep the Meals on Wheels program running smoothly.

“We have a different person going every day to get the food in bulk,” she said. “It’s hot and it’s all ready. It’s in big totes and we then put it in a steam table and package it up to deliver around town. Today, we have a total of 36 meals ordered.

“Sometimes it’s 40, sometimes it’s 45, depending on the menu and they always check the dessert to see if it’s a good dessert,” she laughed. “Today, it’s sliced ham, but what topped it off is the apple crisp.”

Last year, the volunteers served or delivered 8,998 meals, which averages out to 750 meals a month. With six volunteers driving to Perham for food pickup, nine delivery drivers, and anywhere from five to 12 volunteers in the kitchen on a given day, the Senior Center is a hopping place during the week.

Meals are available to those who are 55 years old and up and delivered meals need to be ordered a day ahead of time to give the volunteers time to order their meals.

“You have to put your order in the day ahead of time so we know how much to order,” said Amberg-Jokela. “Sometimes, they don’t, but we do order extras, which hopefully, we can freeze some. We bring a lot of our customers frozen meals for the weekend. Some of the people that get our meals, they get them free because they’ve qualified, this is a subsidized federal program.”

Amberg-Jokela went on to say that those eligible for free meals are qualified depending upon their financial situations as well as health coverage.

“Our meals are $4,” she said. “Where can you go to get a ham dinner with gratin potatoes, corn, apple crisp, and coffee, water, or milk with bread and butter?”

“And wonderful company!” chimed in volunteer Pat Rowe.

Meal delivery drivers travel through all kinds of inclement weather to reach their destinations. Amberg-Jokela likened their driving volunteers to the Pony Express as they trudge through snowbanks, puddles, ice and sleet, and other less-than-ideal conditions.

“These people that we deliver to, most of them are either sick or elderly,” said Amberg-Jokela. “They can’t get out and shovel themselves out, so we just trudge through anything.

“This goes year round,” she said of the program. “The only days we take off are the major holidays. For a lot of the recipients, we’ll bring an extra meal for them the day before so that they’re always supplied with seven meals.”

Volunteers are always being sought to help out with Meals on Wheels and the summertime is especially busy as fair-weather Minnesotans return from the southern states.

“In the summertime, all our snowbirds are back,” Amberg-Jokela said. “So we have a lot of people coming here to eat too. Today, we’re probably serving 15 people besides our deliveries.”

The Senior Center volunteers have to stick by the five mile radius policy of Nutrition Services, Inc. while delivering meals, however, they are able to go out of town twice a week to deliver to those who are in need of meals as well.

“We can go twice a week and then bring a hot meal and some frozen ones to fill in, so we do go out of town too,” said Amberg-Jokela. “We go to Oak Point, over by Pine Lake, and out on Highway 135.”

Despite all the work that goes into keeping the program running, the Senior Center volunteer are a happy bunch.

“It’s a lot of personal time and volunteering that happens here,” said Amberg-Jokela. “We’ve got about 30 volunteers right now, which are kept busy. We’re all happy here.”

“It’s an extremely fun place to be,” agreed Pat Rowe.

“This morning I thought, ‘I can hardly get out of bed, I’m so tired, I don’t wan’t to go,’” smiled Amberg-Jokela. “But once I got here, it’s just a happy place to be. All of us being senior citizens, we watch out for each other.”