Food insecurity affects nearly 20,000 residents of Orange County — and with the COVID-19 pandemic, it's become even more difficult for senior residents to access the resources they need.
Rachel Bearman, executive director of Chapel Hill-Carrboro Meals on Wheels, said the pandemic has complicated food distribution, especially for high-risk senior residents.
“Through our volunteer phone calls we were doing, we realized that a lot of our recipients who used to have other options for getting other food to their home — since we were only delivering one hot meal a day on the weekdays — no longer had the same access to those other resources,” Bearman said.
Organizations such as Meals on Wheels Orange County, N.C. and the Orange County Department on Aging have been providing meals to senior citizens throughout the pandemic while adapting their protocols for maximum safety.
The Orange County Department on Aging, which runs the Seymour Center in Chapel Hill and the Passmore Center in Hillsborough, runs a lunch program for older adults.
Isabel Jackson, food services coordinator for Orange County senior centers, said that the program has continued through the pandemic, with a few adjustments to ensure safety of recipients.
The program has switched from providing one hot meal every day from Monday through Friday to providing one hot meal and one boxed meal that are available for curbside pickup on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“We are continuing to supply the food, but in a different way, because in the beginning of the pandemic we didn’t know how much exposure with the seniors would be OK,” Jackson said.
The Orange County Department on Aging is also supplementing its lunch program by providing pre-packaged boxes of food through its commodity supplemental food box program.
Shenae McPherson is the administrator of the Volunteer Connect 55+ program— the branch of the department organizing the supplemental food box program. She said the commodity supplemental food boxes are packaged by the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina and generally contain canned fruit, canned vegetables, rice or pasta, peanut butter, beans, a breakfast item, such as oatmeal, and canned meat.
McPherson said the boxes of food are distributed using a drive-through method in order to keep staff and recipients safe.
“All participants remain in their vehicles," McPherson said. "Staff are provided and required to wear PPE and implement social distancing. We also encourage our older adults to wear cloth face coverings."
Meals on Wheels Orange County, N.C. delivers meals to older adults who have disabilities, are homebound or otherwise unable to access food from other sources through the pandemic.
Bearman said under usual conditions, volunteers deliver one hot meal per day to the recipient's home. Since the start of the pandemic, Meals on Wheels has been delivering five frozen meals and a bag of fruit to the recipient’s home once a week, and volunteers are no longer going into the recipients’ homes but instead putting the food outside of their doors.
Jackson also said that the Orange County Department on Aging had partnered with the Carrboro and Chapel Hill police departments to reach seniors that have difficulty leaving their homes to access food.
“We have another group of people who are not able to pick up their meals because of lack of transportation or mobility impairments, and those lunches are delivered to their house by the Carrboro and Chapel Hill police department,” Jackson said.
Bearman said in April, the organization started putting together emergency food and supply boxes, similar to the supplemental commodity food boxes provided by Orange County, for those recipients who had expressed that they were having difficulty accessing food since the start of the pandemic.
Bearman and Jackson both said they have seen the number of recipients for their nutrition programs grow since the start of the pandemic. Bearman said she believes this increase is partly due to increased unemployment and an inability for high-risk adults to leave their homes, and partly due to increased information being distributed about already existing resources.
“I also think that when this started, it highlighted a number of needs that have always existed in the community but that COVID made more apparent," Bearman said. "And there was a lot of information that was being given out about resources that have always been there but that maybe people didn’t know about, such as organizations that were serving the food-insecure community."
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