When Michigan went on pandemic lockdown in mid-March, Feed the Need, Rotary Club of Novi’s summer youth lunch program, went mobile.
With just two days’ notice, Feed the Need volunteers were tapping into 2020 summer program funds to buy food and organize a weekday driveup lunch service at six locations in Novi. The idea was to distribute free bagged lunches to children and teens while schools remain closed because of the COVID-19 crisis.
During the first few weeks of Michigan’s “Stay Home Stay Safe” executive order, Feed the Need gave free lunches to approximately 400 students each day at drive-up locations. That’s almost twice the number of students that participate in Feed the Need’s summer lunch program.
Feed the Need also saw an increase in volunteers from 210 in early March to 250 when schools were closed.
“I want that number to continue growing,” program coordinator Tia Marie Sanders said. “We are constantly adding to our volunteer pool and we activate them as needed. We can change on a dime and be nimble to meet whatever the current demand is. I hope other nonprofits do the same.”
Western Oakland Meals on Wheels, a nutrition program that serves a daily hot meal to mostly homebound senior citizens age 60 and up, also pivoted as needed during the pandemic. The program normally serves approximately 750 seniors who dine either at home or in one of 13 area senior centers.
When Michigan residents began sheltering in place and senior centers were closed, all meal packaging was moved to the Hartland Educational Services Support building in Howell, where food is prepared, packaged, and transported by vans to volunteer drivers for home delivery.
A crew of 400 volunteers bring meals to homebound seniors in Novi, neighboring communities, and Livingston County, Monday through Friday. Seniors pay $3 for each ready-to-eat hot meal and they can buy frozen dinners for consumption on the weekend. Meals on Wheels also occasionally supplies each client with a free box or bag fi lled with shelf-stable food including peanut butter and canned goods.
“It’s something they can have if they just want a snack, or if something happens and we can’t come. It’s food that will get them by,” said Outreach Director Candie Hovarter. “Another thing we’ll do is feed their pets. Dogs and cats are what we do. We’ll bring canned or dry food. A pet gives them something to think about and to care for.”
Hovarter seeks donations when the pet food pantry needs restocking. None of the funding used for senior meals goes toward pet nutrition.
Meals on Wheels is 45 percent grant funded by the Area Agency on Aging 1-b and Aging and Adult Services Agency. Donations, the $3 meal fee and occasional catering gigs provide additional revenue.
Hovarter said demand for home-delivered meals increased during the pandemic, although some clients opted out of the program as their family members stepped up to help.
“During the virus we had some of our volunteers say they couldn’t do it anymore. Some of our volunteers are seniors themselves and since that segment of the population is at such high risk we’re glad to have members of the community get involved. They’re still calling to say, what can I do to help? What do you need? We always need money and we can always use good volunteers.”
Hovarter encourages volunteers to get to know each senior on their delivery route, which consists of 10-12 clients. “The human connection is just as important as the meal. The volunteer may be the only person they see all day.”
Seniors often express their gratitude in cards and letters. One man wrote: “I appreciate all the kindness you have shown me since my wife passed away in September. You have to some extent stepped in to make sure I eat right, it’s as if my wife is still here taking care of me.”
These days volunteers use social distancing and good hygiene practices during each delivery, including the use of gloves and masks.
“I hand them the meal and then back up. Of course, we are careful.”
The status of shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines also will impact how Feed the Need will deliver its summer lunch program this year.
“Worst case scenario is we would modify our program to just lunches and have none of our other great resources, none of our guest speakers, field trips and other programming. We wouldn’t be able to have programs if we can’t congregate,” Sanders said. “We would continue with lunch only.”
Feed the Need’s drive-up service, which is based at Novi United Methodist Church, has been a scaled back version of the 11-week summer program that provides students with lunch and a variety of hands-on activities, including science demonstrations, dance lessons, field trips, guest speakers, art projects, recreation, and health clinics.
The Rotary Club, working in conjunction with Novi Community School District, Novi Interfaith Network, and the Novi Public Library, has sponsored Feed the Need since 2015. The summer program, held at Village Oaks Elementary and several satellite locations, is designed to “feed mind, body and spirit of every child” in a dignified way. It’s aimed at students who receive free or reduced cost lunch during the school year – approximately 900-1,000 students in Novi schools – although it’s open to all.
“That’s about 8 or 9 percent. Those are the kids that are documented for free and reduced lunch, not all who actually need free and reduced lunch,” Sanders said. “While we are a Novi-based program, we will accept any child in any family from anywhere who might need our help.”
UPTICK IN DONATIONS
Sanders began planning for the 2020 summer session and fundraising for its expenses in August 2019. She raises approximately $30,000-$40,000 each year to pay for food, programming, kitchen staff and facilities. The cost of food alone last year was $23,000. Food donations by major partners, such as Kroger and National Food Group, help ease expenses.
“We don’t spend what we don’t have. If we raise $40,000, then we have a $40,000 program,” Sanders said.
An outpouring of donations in March helped to replenish some of the funds that were meant for the summer program but were spent on the drive-through bag lunch service. SV Temple in Novi recently donated $1,000 to the cause and Community Financial Credit Union kicked in $1,500. National Food Group, which has donated more than $50,000 over five years, provided 25 boxes of “much needed items” to help launch the drive-up service.
“I was so grateful because I was at risk of potentially using the money we have and then not having any summer program. We’re using our 2020 savings right now, what we’ve been raising since September,” Sanders said. “I’m counting on that continuing surge of donations to come in. If we’re able to reconvene (in June) and we have the funding, we’ll have the same robust program we had in the last years.”
Both Feed the Need and Meals on Wheels also need help acquiring for a few big-ticket items. Sanders’ wish list includes storage and office space, as well as a truck to haul food orders and other goods.
“We need a vehicle to move things like large items. I’ve been using my personal truck, but it’s a 2002 Ford Explorer with over 300,000 miles on it. She is a workhorse but I’m not sure how long she’ll continue her stead.”
Meals on Wheels needs its own kitchen with storage and office space.
“They (Meals on Wheels) bought some land and we’ve gotten money from Livingston County, but we need more money for a building. We need a bigger kitchen that works better for us,” Hovarter said. “I think Meals on Wheels truly is a good program. There’s no waste of funds. We’re just trying to keep seniors in their homes. We need to make that a priority, which is what we’re trying to do. It’s important how we treat our seniors.”
Call Western Oakland Meals on Wheels at 810-632-2155 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org
to start meal delivery. Donate online at womow.mealsonwheelsmi.org
or by sending a check to Western Oakland Meals on Wheels, 9525 E. Highland Road, Howell, MI 48843. Volunteer applications are available online. All applicants must submit to a background check.
Feed the Need’s volunteer applications for adults and teens, age 14 and older, are available at feedtheneednovi.org.
Applicants age 18 and over must submit to a background check. Send donations to Novi Rotary Foundation, c/o Feed the Need, P.O. Box 159, Novi, MI 48376. Call the organization at 248-667-8007 or email email@example.com.