Last Friday morning, Gilda Halbleib poured corn into a steamer. In the adjoining room, Aaron Pritzl accounted for the butter, fruit and drinks while Loann Sumner stamped the proper date onto food trays that would contain the next meal.
That type of coordination is a common scene in the Aging and Disability Resource Center central kitchen in Fall Creek, a well-oiled machine that produces several hundred meals every weekday for senior citizens in Eau Claire County. Employees prepare meals for people in Chippewa County and senior dining options in Augusta, Fairchild and Eau Claire, but most of the food goes toward the county’s Meals on Wheels program. Friday’s menu included cheesy beef casserole with bowtie pasta, steamed corn, an egg roll, butter and fresh fruit.
The building in Fall Creek has housed the program since 2018 under the umbrella of the ADRC. The food is prepared by a staff of four people and rotating cast of volunteers. With a relatively small group of workers, Halbleib said organization, preparation, timing and teamwork are crucial to ensuring everything gets done promptly.
Halbleib and kitchen manager Sheri Sadzewicz begin most days at 4 or 5 a.m., depending on the meal. If something is more time-consuming, such as preparing salads or beef rolls, they must start early. Around 400 meals are ready by 10 a.m., and employees then serve them into different containers for eventual distribution.
Cold food is placed in coolers, and hot items are put in bags that keep the food warm during the trip to someone’s front door. Coolers and bags are marked 1 through 30 for their corresponding delivery routes and then loaded into one of three initial transportation vans. The meals must all be counted to ensure the right number of servings are delivered on every route between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Most Meals on Wheels recipients live in Eau Claire and Altoona, so the initial drivers bring food to four drop off locations, where an array of volunteers transport them to individuals.
“We would never be able to survive without our Meals on Wheels volunteer drivers,” ADRC director Linda Struck said. “It’s phenomenal.”
To be eligible to receive Meals on Wheels services, residents must be at least 60 years old and have mobility limitations, or be the spouse of someone who qualifies. Federal funding for the program comes through the federal Older Americans Act. The ADRC cannot charge recipients for the meals, but a $4 donation per meal is encouraged.
Two ongoing challenges involve funding limitations and the need for volunteers. Some people who volunteer are retired and move south for the winter, making shortages that much tougher during the colder months.
The program stopped doing weekend meals in January 2019 to reduce costs and because of a decrease in volunteerism, though people can order more than one of the same meal to plan ahead for the weekend.
“Eau Claire County wants to be able to provide meals to anybody in our county who wants a meal, and we do that, but it’s very tight,” Struck said.
According to Struck, the ADRC delivered about 68,000 meals in 2018 and a similar number in 2019. Many people receive meals Monday through Friday, but some pick and choose based on the menu, which is on a rotating three-month cycle chosen by Sadzewicz and reviewed by a dietitian.
ADRC nutrition program supervisor Betsy Henck said the most popular offerings involve meat and potatoes, but the variety of meals include Korean barbeque, salmon and French toast. Participants receive a monthly newsletter with that month’s meal schedule, which is also available online. The cooks also make a special Valentine’s Day meal of steak and shrimp.
All workers said the most rewarding aspect involves contact with people on the receiving end of the meals. Pritzl, who began working as a Meals on Wheels cook in April 2018, said hearing from recipients lets him know the work is worthwhile. Once Pritzl understood the details of the job, he said the work “became like second nature.”
One or two volunteers assist with various kitchen duties for a few hours every morning. Sumner began volunteering last summer after her retirement and helps out once per week. She lives in Fall Creek and called the program “a valuable part of the community.”
Halbleib appreciates hearing from citizens who compliment that day’s meal and likes making a difference for people who need the services.
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” Halbleib said.
The collaborative work involves significant planning and preparation, but when everything is organized like last Friday, meals are delivered to hundreds of residents in a timely fashion.