CORONAVIRUS

Horizons ramps up meal delivery to hundreds in Linn and Johnson, but fear of spreading coronavirus takes toll on volunteers

Frozen meals are gathered together Friday before being delivered to clients by Meals on Wheels drivers at Horizons: A Fa
Frozen meals are gathered together Friday before being delivered to clients by Meals on Wheels drivers at Horizons: A Family Service Alliance in southeast Cedar Rapids. The service, which delivers meals to older adults and people with disabilities, will deliver extra frozen meals to its clients because of possible effects of the coronavirus. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — People who receive daily food deliveries from Meals on Wheels already are part of the demographics most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

They are older adults limited to staying at home. Some have disabilities, and many have preexisting health conditions. Some receive food deliveries while recovering from an illness.

So staff and volunteers at Horizons, the nonprofit organization that runs Meals on Wheels in five counties including Linn and Johnson, are especially concerned with keeping them healthy right now.

“These are the people who would be most devastated if they got the virus,” Horizons Chief Executive Officer Mike Barnhart said.

He also knows the meals they provide can’t be easily replaced if Horizons were to have any interruption in services — such as if a large number of volunteers are out sick or are self-isolating due to exposure to the novel coronavirus.

That’s why the nonprofit is working to get five frozen meals delivered by Tuesday to each of about 900 clients in Linn and Johnson. Horizons already provides weekly frozen meals to clients on more rural routes in other counties.

“Our No. 1 thing is that people have food to get by, just in case we have some sort of disruption,” Barnhart said. “If we’re short, say, half of our volunteers, our clients would still have meals. They could eat their frozen meals and we could back fill that in a day or two.”

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The group also is working to put together a menu of shelf-stable foods so volunteers can deliver an additional five days worth of emergency meals to clients.

Following recommendations from the national Meals on Wheels of America, staff also are working with volunteers on how best to deliver the meals so as not to put clients at risk. That could include leaving meals on porches, knocking, and stepping back until the client retrieves the meal, or leaving the meal on a counter inside instead of handing it to a client directly.

“Our fear is taking an illness to them. They’re so vulnerable,” Horizons Vice President Peg Moses said.

Horizons also are encouraging volunteers to avoid hugs and handshakes with clients. That can be difficult emotionally; for many clients, Meals on Wheels volunteers are some of the only contacts they have with the outside world.

“We want to maintain that contact as long as we can. It’s also a wellness check,” Barnhart said. “We want to make sure they’re doing OK.”

Horizons also serves congregate meals for seniors at four dining sites in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Wellman. It has switched from salad bars and serving lines at those sites to pre-making individual salads and plates for clients, as well as switching to disposable products such as silverware. Horizons also is seating people at four to a table, instead of six, to increase the distance between attendees.

All this comes as the organization already is seeing a drop in volunteers; it relies on about 50 people a day to deliver and serve meals.

“We have a lot of volunteers that are seniors; some have said they would feel more comfortable stepping back,” Moses said.

Horizons isn’t the only social service organization making coronavirus preparations.

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Beginning Saturday, the Coralville Community Food Pantry will offer a drive-through option. Visitors can drive or walk up to the door, where a volunteer will be waiting outside to complete the check-in process and deliver groceries directly to them.

“There are certainly a lot of recommendations for people to not be out in public, and it’s a crowded space at the food pantry,” Executive Director John Boller said. “We’re aware the majority of folks we serve are pretty vulnerable as far as their health goes. We’re hoping this is at least the first step to make it a little more accessible to people during this time.”

Individuals who are too ill to leave home may send a surrogate to pick up food on their behalf, with a signed permission sheet and the sick person’s Coralville Community Food Pantry member card. Those with questions may call (319) 337-3663 or email john@coralvillefoodpantry.org. The pantry is open 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday and 10 a.m. to noon Thursday.

The pantry serves about 250 to 300 households from Coralville and Tiffin each week, and Boller said the pantry also is working out plans for a potential increase in demand as impacts from the coronavirus continue.

“We have bags of food going home with school-aged kids for spring break anyway. We would consider extending that if the school system were to close,” he said. “We’re anticipating an increase in people needing the pantry.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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