After 50 years, Meals on Wheels provides more than just food

Each day, people like Maggie Torres help prepare and deliver hot meals for people in need. 

“It feels like I have a new family,” she said while helping package hundreds of hot meals for delivery on a warm March morning. “I look forward to seeing them everyday and they look forward to seeing my smiling face — even with the mask they know when I’m smiling.”

Torres is one of the volunteers at LifePath, an Albany-based organization that partners with the Meals on Wheels program to provide hundreds of meals each day to adults, many of them homebound, in Albany County. 

The Meals on Wheels program is now in its 50th year, created as a way of helping people who struggle to get food a prepared meal. Its impact is far-reaching: Over the last half century, one billion meals have been delivered in New York.

But in the last year, the program has become a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“COVID absolutely created a much larger increase in demand,” said Greg Olsen, the acting director of the Office for the Aging. “We’ve received a lot of federal stimulus funds to specifically address nutrition.”

The program goes beyond providing food. As the pandemic has ground on and people isolated themselves, volunteer drivers have helped provide company, as well as wellness checks for vulnerable people who otherwise may not have much outside interaction. 

“For the average customer who is going to receive these meals today is an 83-year-old female who lives alone, has four or more chronic conditions and can’t prepare or shop for meals and needs some support,” Olsen said. “So this is a vital, not only nutrition program, it’s a health and safety program.”

Across New York, Meals on Wheels programs are serving about 300,000 people each day and 20 million meals a year. The state Office for the Aging said more than half of the people who receive a meal in New York live alone and the vast majority are age 75 and older.

A proposal in the Democratic-led state Assembly’s budget plan would boost funding by $3 million.

At LifePath, 350 meals are typically delivered in a single day to adults. 

“We’ve seen the numbers of home-delivered meals rise and the importance of the meal delivered,” said Holly Cargill-Carmer, the group’s executive director. “It’s a service we’re all going to need at some point in our lives.”

And volunteers like Torres remain the backbone of the effort.  

“Without volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to get the meals out,” Cargill-Cramer said.

Inside LifePath’s kitchen, volunteers help prepare and package meals, sealing them with plastic and packing them in bags designed to keep the food warm. The hundreds of meals are then loaded into volunteers’ cars. 

On this morning, Torres is delivering food to about 17 people around the Albany area. 

“I took care of my parents to the end,” she said while behind the wheel of her car. “And when they left me, I felt a loss in my heart. So I dedicated myself to look for a job similar to what I was doing for my parents and this worked out for me.”

She’ll draw a smilely face on the food containers as an extra message of care.

“So when they look at the bag and they are having a bad day, they know that I’m giving them a smile,” she said.  

Torres is also delivering more than just food.  

“Sometimes it gets lonely. They replaced that loneliness in my heart, you know?” she said. “It gives me a reason to get up every day.”

One of those reasons is Mike McCormick, whose lived in Albany’s Pine Hills neighborhood for the last three years. He’s a fan of the pasta the program delivers to his home. 

“It gets me going to look forward to delivering my lunch every day,” McCormick said while sitting on the couch in his livingroom next to Torres. “It’s very helpful.”

And both have found ways of checking in on each other, cutting through the gloom and dislocation of the pandemic. 

“Forty-five years I have been of my own,” he said. “So yeah, it was very good to have Maggie.”






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