“We’ve had to expand our meals on wheels service,” says Linda Guerra-Lara, (far left) senior center administrator for Guadalupe Centers. “We started out with just two routes and now we’ve expanded to three.” Seniors who are recipients are appreciative of the meals from GCI.

In-depth report

As the local and federal economies continue to take a hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, local non-profit organizations like the Guadalupe Centers (GCI), are making sure their most vulnerable residents get meals on a regular bases.

The recent cold snap of the past couple of weeks has made the job especially difficult, with temperatures plunging into single digits or lower and snowfall making some roads treacherous. Still, hunger doesn’t take a day off when things get tough that’s why the Guadalupe Centers have ramped up their food delivery service for homebound seniors.

“We’ve had to expand our meals on wheels service,” says Linda Guerra-Lara, senior center administrator for Guadalupe Centers. “We started out with just two routes and now we’ve expanded to three.”

That translates going from 200 to 300 households Guerra-Lara also says the center works in conjunction with Wyandotte County to make deliveries to senior high-rise apartment buildings. As an organization with a licensed kitchen and food preparation abilities, those residences especially rely on the GCI and it staff.

“Most of our meals have been approved through the Mid-America Regional Council and a dietitian to meet proper dietary guidelines for seniors,” Guerra-Lara explains.

Before the pandemic began last March, the center also hosted lunch on site for seniors who came to the center to eat each day. Now, with nearly a year since the suspension of that service, Guerra-Lara says seniors don’t just miss eating at the center they miss the socialization with friends old and new that came with eating on site, too.

“There isn’t a week that goes by that we don’t get calls from people asking when we’re going to reopen are senior citizens program,” says Guerra-Lara, who adds that the center has been closed since March 13 of last year. “For them, it was their social outlet. A lot of our seniors are missing that social outlet.”

The feeling is mutual among the center’s staff members and volunteers.

“Not being able to see our seniors daily, you definitely miss that camaraderie, the conversation, their laughs, everything,” she says.

Still, with meal delivery for eligible homebound seniors 60 and older, Guerra-Lara says she takes solace in the fact that those who are stuck at home still get at least one hot meal each day, delivered by a friendly face.

“They look forward to seeing our drivers daily. That might be the only person they talk to throughout the whole week,” Guerra-Lara says. “Our drivers do try to converse and make sure they’re all right.”

Those same drivers ensure that meals are delivered safely, following up if necessary to ensure seniors take them indoors.

“We are one of the few centers that still delivers hot meals, we social distance, we use masks, we hang the meal on their door and we knock on their door to make sure they receive that hot meal. They get to see somebody on the daily,” Guerra-Lara explains. “For them and us, it’s a sense of security for their family members. If there is an issue, we have their contact phone numbers so we can tell a family member, ‘Hey your mom hasn’t gotten her meal yet. Could you try calling her?’ That way, family members can at least come out and check on their loved ones to make sure they’re OK.”

In addition to the daily hot meal delivery, Guerra-Lara adds, the center also drops off frozen meals, milk, and fruit at homebound seniors’ residences, and the center even makes monthly food pantry deliveries (the center’s food pantry is operated through its social service center). Before the pandemic, GCI’s center drivers would take seniors on regular trips to the grocery store.

GCI doesn’t just ensure that homebound seniors’ bodies are fed – their minds get fed as well. “We also send out information packets weekly, whether it be about COVID, utility systems, or heart health,” Guerra-Lara says.

“We also include things like games or a word search to keep their mind sharp.”

Over at the headquarters for Harvesters – The Community Food Network, the organization has seen a spike in residents needing food assistance. Sarah Biles, the organization’s director of communications, says the rise has been noticeable.

“Since the pandemic began, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in number of people needing food assistance. It’s been a 30- to 40-percent increase,” Biles says. “A lot of people turning to our network are people who have never needed food assistance before.”

Biles says that not only have times been difficult for the people that Harvesters serves it’s been difficult for the organization itself.

“It’s been a trying time for us and our network. There was a time early on when we had difficulty because the food supply system kind of shut down and had to be rerouted so we could get more food,” Biles says. “But for the last several months, the food supply chain has been better, and we’ve also been able to tap into federal food programs. That started in May and we’ve been getting it every month since then. It’s supplied about 10 million pounds of food for us.”

Monetary donations from individuals and companies have been most welcome during this time, too, she says, but the organization still has to purchase food on its own to make up for any shortfalls.

“Our goal is to get as much food in as we can from our donors, and we are purchasing a more significant amount. We’ve had a drop in volunteers due to COVID, and a drop in donations from schools and companies that might not be able to donate right now,” she says. “We’re spending about $800,000 a month to purchase food, and we never had to do that before. It’s a lot of money. But we’ve been blessed by the community they’ve stepped up, but it has remained consistent as far as financial donations. Those have been critical so we can make those purchases.”

Biles says she thinks the increased need for food will be present for many months to come, and that she hopes Congress will green light the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, which includes funding for federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps to feed Americans in need.

Until then, Biles says Harvesters is fortunate to work with local nonprofits like the Guadalupe Centers and others in the fight against hunger.

“They’ve been tremendous partners. We can’t do what we do without them,” Biles says. “They do the most important work, which is getting the food to the families and seniors who need it. A lot of these nonprofit partners are smaller and rely on volunteers, and we’re really grateful that so many of our partners have been so dedicated. It’s been something the community has needed.”

For more information on their services, visit www.guadalupecenters.org or www.harvesters.org.