Hot meals ease hunger and loneliness

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A bit more funding and a few more volunteers would keep these Meals On Wheels rolling

Our “greatest generation” survived the Great Depression and the Second World War. They endured and overcame racial discrimination and Jim Crowism in this country. Who are they? They are our seniors.

“Our seniors have given so much to us,” explains Denise Harris, executive director of North Minneapolis Meals On Wheels (NMMOW). “They have been our moms and dads, our teachers, our mentors. Now that they are in the twilight of their life, let’s not leave them hungry or lonely. We don’t forget the people who are in the greatest need in our community.”

They are the community’s most vulnerable members; some are in increasingly fragile states as each year of their advancing age comes and goes. As the holiday season arrives, this time can be even more troubling.

“You find that [senior] people are lonelier,” continues Harris. “They reminisce and think about earlier days in their life when they had families, before they lost spouses, siblings and friends.”

That loneliness magnifies the importance of the hot meals delivered daily by NMMOW. “ Just to open [their] door and hand them that meal and see their face light up, they are delighted that someone thought of them,” says Harris, who joined NMMOW in September 2006 after a 20-year career with Xcel Energy. “Not only are we delivering a hot meal every day, but sometimes this is the only human contact that they have every day.”

NMMOW’s 2006 annual report says it annually delivers over 27,000 meals to seniors, disabled and non-senior home-bound Northsiders. Nearly half of these clients are Native American, Hawaiian, Latino, Black or multi-racial. Seventy-five percent are 60 years of age or older.

Volunteers logged more than 3,500 hours in 2006, valued at $42,000 dollars of unpaid work. “We cover the entire North Side,” says Harris. “We have nine routes, and we deliver an average of 170 meals a day.”

The Penn-Plymouth area is the largest route, with 20 to 40 meals delivered daily. “We are only closed on Thanksgiving, the day after Thanksgiving, and Christmas,” Harris points out. “With the exception of those holidays, we are delivering meals every day.”

No meals are delivered on weekends; for clients needing extra meals, Wednesdays and Thursdays are “double meals day[s],” says Harris.

The meals are prepared at St. Olaf Nursing Home in North Minneapolis. “We work very closely with them on menus that our sick and shut-in neighbors would like,” Harris says. “We really focus on fresh fruit and salads. We really want to make the meal appealing, because if you deliver a meal that is not good, [clients] are not going to eat it.”

Then the meals are delivered around the noon hour, five days a week, over the course of the nine regular routes. Not frozen meals, but hot: Harris says this ensures that those seniors who may be too frail, or don’t own microwave ovens, do not have to use a stove.

The Minneapolis Council of Churches launched NMMOW in 1973, and it became a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization in 1983. It is one of over 50 Meals on Wheels programs currently operating in the seven-county metropolitan area — NMMOW is one of the largest, Harris claims.

However, NMMOW now is facing a budget crisis: Over 70 percent of its funding has been cut by the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging (MAAA), a major sponsor. The MAAA is instituting a new reimbursement system, says Harris.

“I think a lot of people think the program is fully funded by the [federal] government,” says Harris. She appeared before the MAAA board November 15 in hopes of delaying the new system. “Their [the MAAA board] thinking is that our program is getting more funding per meal under the [federal] Title III program than any other program in the metro [area].”

But, the executive director points out that since NMMOW is one of the largest in the area, the additional funding is needed. “We expected cuts — nonprofits always expect cuts — but our program sustained the largest cut of any of the Meals on Wheels programs in the seven-country metro area,” says Harris. “When you have a funding cut that exceeds $50,000 in a budget that is less than $250,000, that has such a dramatic impact on our program.”

When asked what would help the program continue, Harris says NMMOW needs at least $12,000 in additional funding to operate effectively. “That’s all we need,” she notes. “We could use more, but $12,000 would keep us running.”

Her organization is seeking more partnerships with businesses, especially Northside small businesses, and volunteers who could work at least one hour a month “or partner with us for $100 a year,” says Harris.

There are 20 local churches that also work with NMMOW. Board member Bernard Glover says that more Black churches could help. “If each church would take up an offering once a month, it could really help tremendously,” he says.

Harris learned shortly after retiring from Xcel Energy that NMMOW was searching for a new executive director. “I was looking for something in the nonprofit area,” she recalls. NMMOW and Harris soon became a perfect fit: “I had just the right expertise at the right time to bring more awareness of the program, to make broader connections within the African American community.”

Harris has been a community volunteer and involved in nonprofit community endeavors for over two decades. A native of Detroit, she often visited the area and spent time with her uncle, who was a church pastor, during her youth. Later, after graduating from college, she and her twin brother Dennis, a local contractor, relocated to St. Paul.

Almost immediately, Harris got involved in Minneapolis’ North Side. “Like many African Americans that move here from another state, they’re drawn to the Black community on the North Side,” she points out. “I’m familiar with the North Side even though I live in St. Paul.”

Harris is also involved in the capital city and serves on several boards, including the Riverfront Corporation, where she was first appointed by former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman. She is also a member of St. Paul’s Urban Partnership and Community Development.

“We [she and her brother] always have been taught to give back to the community,” says Harris. “I’ve been blessed to be active in the community and my church.” (She is a member of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.)

Harris was honored November 15, National Philanthropy Day, by the Minnesota chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

“My oldest volunteer is 98 years old,” says Harris. “The majority of our volunteers are in their eighties and nineties. A number of our volunteers are of European descent.”

More Blacks are needed as volunteers, adds Bernard Glover. “We are not getting any younger people to volunteer,” says Mary Glover, NMMOW’s longest-tenured Black board member, who joined the organization 15 years ago as a volunteer. Because there are not enough volunteers, Harris says, drivers must be hired, adding to their budget stress.

Despite the budget shortfall, Harris says she is totally committed to keeping NMMOW going. “I don’t want to see the program closed,” she concludes. “I don’t want to see it go away.”

If you are interested in volunteering or if you or someone you know is interested in receiving meals, call NMMOW at 612-522-7335.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com, or read his blog, www.www challman.blogspot.com

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