Volunteers serve up meals to seniors

ADDISON COUNTY — Jean Fifield and Mary Smith are arguably two of the best delivery drivers in Addison County. What other food delivery driver will check your mail and even sit with you while you eat if you’d like company?
The pair delivers for the Champlain Valley Agency for Aging’s Meals on Wheels program, which delivers hot, nutritious lunches and suppers to seniors who are unable to prepare their own meals.
Fifield’s and Smith’s commitment applies to most weather conditions short of a hurricane or blizzard. When asked about delivering in winter weather, Smith’s response was automatic: “You get braver,” she said.
Fifield, who is retired, started volunteering for Meals on Wheels after her father received assistance through the program for five years while she was still working.
“I thought it was time to pay it back,” she said.
Fifield, 68, started delivering with a friend at church and even convinced her husband to participate with her. She has been delivering meals for 15 years and said the experience makes her want to continue.
“Once you do it, and you see these people alone in their homes, and you know that Meals on Wheels allows them to stay there, it makes you want to do it because you think ‘I would like to be able to stay in my home, too, when I’m older,’” Fifield said.
“You can tell these people really appreciate what they’re getting and really need it,” Smith added.
The commitment is flexible; Fifield and Smith deliver meals together once a month. Others sign up to deliver once a week.
Six years ago, Ruth Hutchins fell at her home and broke her wrist. Unable to cook with one hand, she signed up for Meals on Wheels, which delivered hot meals directly to her every day. Now, at 72, Hutchins still participates in the program. Sometimes she goes out to eat with her daughter but cooking on her own, she said, is difficult. 
“I would probably buy frozen TV dinners,” she said.
Hutchins is not alone. Many seniors can drive cars and live independently, but mobility problems, memory loss or aging eyes can make cooking complete, healthy meals difficult. Genevieve Palmer, 95, lives in New Haven and receives help from her family on the weekends and her son spends nights at her house. She moved from Addison to a newer modular home that could accommodate her mobility needs. The best part about Meals on Wheels, she said, is the convenience.
“It’s easy,” Palmer said, describing the program she has participated in for the past 10 years. “It’s not worth cooking and my eyesight is getting worse all the time so I can’t really read a recipe. It’s great for me and I imagine it is for a lot of people.”
CVAA offers a number of opportunities to seniors in Addison County, including flu and pneumonia prevention clinics, monthly blood pressure screenings, monthly foot care clinics, nutrition education, wellness education and physical activity programs to name a few. Meals on Wheels is one of the larger programs and also one of the most needed, especially in the winter months.
Speaking at a community lunch at the Veterans of Foreign Wars club in Middlebury, Meals on Wheels and Community Meals coordinator Tracy Corbett said she loves her job.
“I’ve told the office I’ve been here for over 11 years and I’m going to the grave before I’m quitting my job,” she said. “I work with seniors who are libraries with skin. These people have such rich experiences and they’re very open to sharing them. On the flipside of my job are all my volunteers who come to do this because they want to. It’s awesome.” 
Volunteer drivers play an important role in the complicated dance of logistics of delivering meals. Meals are prepared in Rutland by catering company Fitz Vogt, then transported north via truck to a drop-off point and distributed to drivers who are each assigned a route. Middlebury has seven routes; Bridport has two; Vergennes has four; Bristol has three and Hinesburg has one. The driver for each route has a “route sheet,” which gives the name, address, date of birth, dietary restrictions (low sodium/cholesterol, diabetes, etc.) as well as other notes in boldfaced type on the individual’s habits or disposition. After the deliveries, the route sheets are destroyed. Hot meals come every day Monday through Friday, with frozen meals delivered on Fridays for the weekends.
Mary West, assistant nutrition director at the CVAA, said the daily food deliveries ensure seniors not only have the food they need, but also ensures they receive other assistance.
“Some of the people Meals on Wheels serves live alone,” she said. “They aren’t going to see anyone else for the rest of the day. The volunteer drivers are the extra set of eyes making sure they have what they need, that they’re safe and can get extra help if they need it.”
On one occasion, Fifield entered a man’s home to discover he had accidentally unplugged himself from his oxygen tank. She plugged the machine back in, initiated a safety check and a medical professional was called to the house.
Meals on Wheels serves a variety of individuals in Addison County. Corbett said while some seniors may be healthy in some areas, their diet and nutrition can be poor, making them eligible for the program.
“Some people are considered nutritional risks because they’re not going to take care of themselves,” she said. “I was once asked about the eligibility of one man who could make you a dining room table faster than he could make anything to put on it. He just can’t cook. Another man was eating at McDonald’s all the time and his diabetes shot up. With decent nutrition, he’s a really healthy guy now.”
With an increasing number of seniors in Vermont, more are eligible to participate in the program. Between 2011 and 2013, CVAA has seen an increase of nearly 2,000 per year across the four counties it serves — Addison, Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle. That has resulted in CVAA committed to delivering 42,457 meals in Addison County in fiscal year 2013. But, despite the increase, the resources available to CVAA have shrunk. Due to loss of some federal funds because of the spending cuts referred to as “sequestration,” the agency lost $80,000, and as a result it had to stop delivering 28,000 meals in the four counties.
Mary West said the cuts were done in order to prevent placing eligible seniors on a waiting list. Drivers now deliver one meal every day instead of two.
“We don’t see that coming back any time soon,” she said. 
In the face of increasing need and diminishing funds, Corbett said the need for volunteers — particularly drivers — is dire.
“The drivers make our program happen,” she said. “We can’t afford to pay their gas, we can’t afford to pay their time. We would cut every single program to the bare bones if we had to recompense volunteers in any scenario.”
According to the Meals On Wheels Association of America Foundation, one in nine seniors (roughly 5 million people) is at risk of hunger today in the United States. The most recent data from the group Hunger Free Vermont states that over 84,000 Vermonters lack access to enough food to fully meet basic needs and more than 7,500 (6 percent) of Vermont’s seniors are defined as “food insecure.”
Despite the budget cuts and the increasing need, CVAA remains committed to providing services without demanding payment and West said she refuses to budge.
“We won’t go backward,” she said. “Not on my watch.”

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