Meals on Wheels feeds the hungry as need doubles

Story and photos by Drew Myron

Bob Wallace with his meal
The local Meals on Wheels program provides more than 200 meals a day to homebound seniors. “It’s good food and I don’t have to cook,” says Bob Wallace.

Feeding hundreds of people each day, the Hood River Valley Adult Center is swamped with need. Cars line the parking lot for meals to go, while inside a cramped kitchen a busy trio prepares hot meals for delivery throughout Hood River County.

Before COVID-19, the center’s dining room bustled with seniors chatting and laughing over hearty meals, and hot dishes were delivered to elderly who couldn’t leave their homes. In that now-nostalgic time, the center provided 100 meals each day.

In less than a year, that number has more than doubled.

Due to the pandemic, the center offers both drive-thru and delivered meals, and has expanded to include seniors in the Hood River Valley who normally would dine at Mt. Hood Town Hall in Parkdale, which closed its meal program as a health precaution.

“We’re serving all of Hood River County and Mosier (in Wasco County), 200 to 230 meals each day,” says Amy Mallett, the center’s director. “It’s busier than we’ve ever seen, and this winter, numbers could increase.”

The center operates the area’s Meals on Wheels program, providing free hot meals to anyone older than 60 who is unable to shop for food, prepare meals or socialize with others. A dedicated staff of three— and a handful of volunteers—provides more than 24,000 meals annually in an effort that serves Hood River, Mosier, Cascade Locks, Pine Grove, Odell, and Parkdale.

Nutritious hot meals are prepared by Food Service Director Sophia Homan and her brother, Meals on Wheels Coordinator Eric Gonzales.

“Oh boy, food expenses have doubled,” Sophia says. “But it’s worth it. People are hungry.”

Even before COVID-19, she says, the demand for meals had been rising. Why?

Eric Gonzales and Sophia Homan prepare and package hundreds of drive-thru and delivery meals each day.

“Good cooking, I guess,” Sophia says with a smile. “Ninety-five percent of our food is homemade. It’s comfort food. It’s not institutional.”

Sophia expanded the menu to include Japanese, Mexican, and Italian meals, and she’s eager to dish up more.

“We need our kitchen updated,” she says. “I have no doubt that we could double our numbers.”

“Kudos to the kitchen!” says Edith Dotson of Hood River, as she receives her daily delivery. “The meals have gotten better and better. One day, I got sprouts, and I know they’re high in vitamins. Another day I got enchiladas, and that was great. I love the variety.”

A team of six volunteer drivers— comprised primarily of retirees with a heart for helping—deliver hot meals Monday through Friday, along with frozen meals packaged for the weekend.

Norberto Maahs, who assisted seniors and people with disabilities in his career as a case manager, is now retired and serves as a volunteer driver. He takes the Friday shift. His wife, Carol, delivers meals on Mondays.

“People are so nice and appreciative,” Norberto says. “You make contact with people who are homebound, and sometimes you’re the only person they see all week.”

Most live alone. Many live in small houses, apartments, or motel rooms. In one apartment building, Norberto makes several stops. One person is chatty; another is quiet and gives just a nod.

At his last stop, Norberto knows to knock lightly and leave the hot meal outside the door. As he steps away, a small voice reaches down the dark hall and quietly says, “Thank you.”

Three years ago, Liz Lane was diagnosed with cancer. Alone and ill, Meals on Wheels was a lifesaver.

“This is a godsend,” she says as Norberto hands her the lunchtime delivery. “It really helps stretch your budget. I love Meals on Wheels.”

Edith Dotson thanks Volunteer Norberto Maahs for her delivery. In the past year, demand for meals has doubled. More volunteers are needed to meet the need.

Meals on Wheels does not receive any state or local government money. It is funded in part by the Older Americans Act—a federal program enacted more than 50 years ago to support the nutritional needs of adults age 60 and older.

Despite decades of bipartisan support, funding for Meals on Wheels has not kept pace with the rapidly growing need for services. Food, transportation, and other costs have increased while funding remains stagnant, according to Meals on Wheels America.

The local program operates on private grants, foundations, and individual donations, along with proceeds from the Thrift Store—a volunteer-run shop of clothing and housewares on the lower level of the Hood River Valley Adult Center. Due to the pandemic, the center has reduced its hours of operations from five days to two, and profits have tanked.

“We’re taking a big hit,” Amy says.

The increased number of people seeking meals underscored the urgency for more money, volunteers, and facility updates. Fundraising is now underway to help pay for center improvements, including a new kitchen.

The kitchen is cramped, with little room for the team to prepare, package, and distribute more than 200 meals a day.

“It’s a very small kitchen,” Amy says, noting the space is more suitable for residential than commercial use. “It’s all breaking apart. The kitchen is outdated. It makes cooking difficult, and it’s hard to keep staff safe and distanced. We have unsafe conditions.”

Still, hunger calls, and a dedicated team is ready to serve.

Dick Frazier, a volunteer for 12 years, delivers meals nearly every day to Odell, Parkdale, and Hood River.

“Folks are hungry, and they want to visit,” he says. “They get to feeling that you’re part of the family. They show you pictures of their grandchildren. It’s a wonderful feeling. We’re getting people fed.”

How to Help

To donate or volunteer, contact: Hood River Valley Adult Center 2010 Sterling Place, Hood River, OR 97031 Amy Mallett, director, at (541) 386-2060, visit the Hood River Valley Adult Center donation page, or email.