Since 1971, the Santa Barbara Meals on Wheels has been delivering food to the doors of housebound seniors around the local community, and even with the current coronavirus pandemic, they are still committed to keeping that mission alive.
“We have eight routes that we serve just a regular meal and then we have two other routes that we serve that are for people who need therapeutic meals, like if they are diabetic and things of that nature and we try to take care of them as best we can,” Linda Ruuska, vice president of the Santa Barbara Meals on Wheels, told the News-Press over the phone.
For more than 40 years, Meals on Wheels has been able to provide the elderly who are incapable of moving around with fresh hot meals 365 days a year. They serve about 130 clients a day.
While the meals are not free, Ms. Ruuska said they subsidize almost 50% of the cost usually charging no more than $4.50 per meal.
Also, unlike other Meals on Wheels, the local Santa Barbara one does not prepare the food itself. It instead receives meals that are prepared daily by Valle Verde Retirement Community and their professional staff.
In a time where everything is changing on a daily, if not even hourly basis, Meals on Wheels has also had to make some shifts.
Some changes involve making sure the food is prepared and picked up in a much safer way to Ms. Ruuska and the Meals on Wheels Driving Coordinator Kay Castagnola changing the distributing routes on a daily basis so they could then get the food out to their clientele.
“It’s a crazy time for all but I tell you we have incredible volunteers and staff,” Ms. Ruuska said.
Currently the Meals on Wheels has three part-time staff members and has about 80 drivers that volunteer. Given the current situation, some of those drivers are currently not in rotation as they are attending to their own health, especially some volunteers themselves are over the age of 70.
“As the weeks go on more of our drivers are not able to drive so some of them have stepped up and are doing two and three routes a week,” Ms. Ruuska said.
The average route takes about two hours but drivers have always been more than willing to step up and help out the local community.
“Our volunteers actually try to interact with the people they serve, but unfortunately, at this time, we’re keeping that 6 foot distance from them. We still try to reach out to them when they open the door and when we deliver the food and chat with them so they don’t feel so alone,” Ms. Ruuska said.
She also added that the change for the drivers has probably hit them the hardest.
“You become friends with these folks and they’re kind of a touchstone for their families. Many of the families are out of town and so we try to keep an eye on them and let them know. We have an emergency number to call and keep people informed if someone’s not eating her food or anything like that,” Ms. Ruuska said.
Also, like most organizations and even hospitals, finding the most basic supplies has never been harder.
Paper towels and sanitizers are becoming increasingly harder to find, but Ms. Ruuska was very thankful for the help she did receive from Bragg Live Foods in Goleta.
“I asked them to donate some bags for us to be able to just leave them on our client’s doorstep that way the food would stay sanitary. Typically we would just hand the food off but we have had to make adjustments and they were so generous to provide us with those so we’re very grateful,” Ms. Ruuska said.
Over the past few weeks, Ms. Ruuska said the demand for Meals on Wheels has been growing. With COVID-19 especially hurting those who are older and are immunocompromised, more and more elderly people are staying at home trying to avoid going out at all.
“We don’t mind that at all,” Ms. Ruuska said.
“This is a service that we are possibly going to need as we get older as well so we enjoy doing it and we know that it’s really necessary because these folks are really vulnerable individuals.”
Additionally, there is no age restriction to applying to receive food from Meals on Wheels. They accept anyone “who is housebound and needs the service” such as blind people or people in wheelchairs, etc.
With growing demand, Meals on Wheels is also thankful for any monetary donation that could be made. If you want to donate, just go to https://www.mealsonwheelssb.org/ and click on the donate button in the front page.
“We truly appreciate any help we could get with the extra expenses we are incurring right now and we are always thankful for the help of this community,” Ms. Ruuska said.
One thing that always brings a smile to Ms. Ruuska and all the volunteers face is how kind the people they help are.
Just last week, Ms. Ruuska said she received a text from a driver with a photo attached. The photo showed a little jug that was just outside the door. It had a message saying: “Meals on Wheels: Thank you. I hope you know you are appreciated.”
“These people are just lovely, they’re just so thankful that we’re coming and bringing the food to them. Even when it’s not a disaster they’re still just very gracious and wonderful,” Ms. Ruuska said.
“We really just want people to know we are here and our clients have been asking us if we are going to continue bringing food and we just tell them of course.
“We’re going to do this as long as we possibly can unless somebody stops us.”