The Daily Memphian: At MIFA, ‘We had to get the meals out’

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The Daily Memphian: At MIFA, ‘We had to get the meals out’

At MIFA, ‘We had to get the meals out’

By Sally Jones Heinz
April 17, 2020

It’s hard to remember what the world was like just a few weeks ago, before we tuned up our laptops and learned to work from home, and before we knew what Zoom meetings were.

At MIFA, we made quick decisions about moving applications for emergency assistance online and replacing weekly meetings with conference calls.

But how could we continue to deliver MIFA Meals on Wheels, a service that, by design – by necessity – is face-to-face, during social isolation? Our answer stretched our imaginations and our capacity, but it has allowed us to continue providing nutrition for our most vulnerable senior neighbors.

Under normal circumstances, MIFA Meals on Wheels delivers hot meals to homebound seniors five days a week. The staff and volunteers who make these deliveries give hugs, shake hands, go inside and visit a minute. This break in a senior’s isolation is a core component of Meals on Wheels programs everywhere.

Suddenly those vital interactions put our clients, our staff and our volunteers – most of whom are seniors themselves – at risk. We had to find another way.

And we have. Our staff turned to two delivery models we already knew: shelf-stable and frozen meals, which can be packed in boxes and delivered less often, then stored by clients until they need them. We’ve learned that functionally, our clients require individual, complete meals; many are not physically capable of cooking for themselves. Frozen meals are TV dinner-style, just like the hot meals we serve. Each shelf-stable meal contains an entrée, fruit cup, juice and dessert. We deliver both meal formats in boxes of five – enough to last a few days, but not too heavy or large for our seniors to manage.

We are still providing nutrition to all of our 2,200 MIFA Meals on Wheels clients. Our home-delivered clients still get hot meals several days a week, and all of them have also received a supply of frozen and shelf-stable meals to have on hand in case of a disruption in service. Our clients at congregate meal sites, where communal dining has been suspended, now pick up a five-pack of meals in a single delivery each week.

Since March 16, we have delivered more than 55,000 meals. In a typical month, we deliver about 38,000.

Despite our worries about funding, we decided to order more meals and more boxes to put them in. We rented freezer space for overflow. We converted our board room to an assembly line. Our meals team sketched out four weeks of delivery plans on white boards.

Since the beginning of the crisis, we’ve scaled back deliveries to three days a week, to reduce the risk of coronavirus exposure for both our meals clients and the volunteers and staff who serve them. We’ve supplied hand sanitizer, then gloves, then masks as the CDC’s recommendations changed, and we moved daily meal pick-ups outside so volunteers didn’t have to come into the MIFA building.

We’ve partnered with the City of Memphis, whose employees have packed thousands of boxes and delivered hundreds of meals alongside our remaining regular volunteers.

We are so grateful for all the help we’ve received. And I have never been prouder to work with the exceptional staff at MIFA.

As the pandemic pressed in on them, forcing them to completely rethink their service model and regular procedures, they never missed a beat.

And if you asked any of them why they did it, they’d say, as if it were simple, “We had to get the meals out.”

Because they know how essential this nutrition is. They know, for many of these seniors, the meals we deliver are the only ones they have.

For thousands of seniors right here in Memphis, “social isolation” was a way of life long before it was a CDC recommendation. For those who are homebound, the guidelines in place now to protect them from the novel coronavirus also deepen their isolation. Just like hunger, loneliness can have profound effects on health over time.

So while we aren’t seeing our clients as often, while we can’t hug them or sit and visit, we have another plan: Our staff members and volunteers are calling clients twice a week to check on them. We hope these calls will help our seniors feel connected to someone who cares about them until we can see them again.

We could all take a lesson from that, in a time when things feel so uncertain. Take a moment to reach out to someone who might need to hear a friendly voice. You might find—as our staff and volunteers have—that it’s good for you, too.

To support MIFA’s meal delivery during the coronavirus pandemic, please go to