It took Dottie Ham a couple of minutes to answer the rapping on her door one recent morning. The 80-year-old former nurse’s aide suffers from arthritis and joint pain and uses two canes to slowly navigate the small, rent-subsidized apartment she shares with another woman in Bangor. By the time she reached the door, a second brisk knock had sounded.
“Yes, I’m here,” she said, opening the door with a flourish. In the hallway outside stood Caitlyn Gunn, 32, of Bangor, who had a large, insulated bag slung over her shoulder. The two women exchanged friendly greetings before Gunn, a client of the nonprofit Amicus program for adults with cognitive disabilities, lugged her bag to the kitchen table and unpacked its contents: a quart of milk, a loaf of bread and five frozen dinners from the Meals on Wheels program.
Ham is relatively new to Meals on Wheels, a federal program for homebound seniors administered in the Bangor area by Eastern Area Agency on Aging. Having recently moved out of a family situation that wasn’t meeting her needs, she says the program is helping her live with greater safety and independence in her own apartment.
“The meals are pretty good,” she said, checking out the entrees before stashing them in her freezer. “I just thaw them out and put them in the microwave for a few minutes. I’m eating better now than I ever have, I guess.”
The meals delivered with a smile to Ham’s door that day included grilled chicken breast with tangy piccata sauce, penne pasta drizzled with a creamy primavera, sliced turkey ham with sweet potato and pineapple rings and more. Each meal also included a helping of vegetables: broccoli florets, mixed peas and carrots, sliced green beans. And while their standardized, pre-packaged appearance hinted at anonymous mass production, the meals were actually prepared by local kitchen workers in a gleaming industrial kitchen just across town.
Nutritionally balanced options in a varied menu
BAFS is a frozen-food manufacturing facility located on the grounds of Bangor International Airport. Originally operating as Bangor Airport Food Service, the company has since 1998 prepared in-flight meals for passenger and military aircraft and provided fancier catering services for celebrities, corporate leaders and other VIP travelers. For the past 10 years or so, BAFS has also cooked for the approximately 350 Meals on Wheels recipients in Penobscot, Piscataquis, Washington and Hancock counties — the 13,000-square-mile territory served by Eastern Area Agency on Aging in Bangor.
BASF also prepares individual meals for Meals on Wheels in Aroostook County and in southern Maine, as well as family-style servings of the same foods for federally funded “community cafes” — sociable midday meals served at senior centers and other sites across the state.
For the EAAA Meals on Wheels program alone, BAFS prepares about 1,200 meals per week for home delivery, along with individual loaves of bread for each client. Each meal provides 500 to 800 calories and about one-third of the recommended daily intake of essential vitamins and minerals.
Ordered about two weeks ahead of scheduled delivery, meals reflect the personal preferences and nutritional needs of each client. Low-sodium is the standard, according to Rob Crone, director of nutrition and auxiliary services at EAAA. Choices also include vegetarian, gluten-free and pureed entrees, as well as lines for people with diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease. There is also a popular “comfort food” option, which features favorites such as Salisbury steak with onion gravy, baked sole with seafood stuffing and ham with pineapple rings.
The comfort food line is especially popular with older recipients, particularly in the most rural areas.
“We took beans and franks off the menu once, and it was like the apocalypse,” Crone said with a laugh.
The homey, Saturday-night favorite was quickly reinstated.
But for the more adventurous, available entrees also include Moroccan vegetable stew, meatballs with stout and mustard-thyme gravy, chickpea-based channa masala, orange-glazed chicken, pulled pork with an apple-onion sauce and much more.
The most recent addition to the menu is pork fried rice, a response to growing demand for gluten-free options, BAFS production manager Adrian Hartell said. “We use shredded pork loin, eggs and Asian vegetables with brown rice. We’re trying to use more brown rice in the meals, but most people in Maine just want potatoes.”
In the near future, Hartell speculated, the generation of aging baby boomers will probably demand more ethnic menu choices and greater variety in the Meals on Wheels offerings.
Doorstep delivery with a social bonus
The BAFS kitchens are regularly inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and private inspectors. Because of the link to air travel, they also are under constant camera surveillance by the Transportation Security Administration.
During a recent visit, workers were assembling a simple vegetarian dish — a tender lasagna noodle rolled around an herbed filling of ricotta and mozzarella napped with a silky vegetable cream sauce. With a serving of lightly steamed broccoli nestled alongside, the meals were packed into individual cardboard trays, sealed with plastic, labeled and flash-frozen for distribution.
Frozen meals are stored at the BAFS facility for a week or two, until they are brought to regional sites for home delivery. A far-reaching network of paid workers and volunteers make doorstep deliveries in the remotest corners of the four-county EAAA territory as well as in more densely settled areas.
In Greater Bangor, that includes Caitlyn Gunn and the small cadre from Amicus that waited in the car while she delivered Dottie Ham’s meals last Tuesday. Amicus staff member Richard Bean, who drove them on their rounds, said his clients enjoy the weekly outing and the opportunity to serve. “They get to meet a lot of new people and give back to the community,” he said.
Tom Kenny, assistant director of nutrition and auxiliary services at EAAA, said important relationships develop between drivers and clients.
“In a lot of cases, the drivers and clients get very close,” he said. “Our driver may be the client’s only point of contact in the community.” Typically, drivers will have a short social visit, making sure the client is well, safe and mentally oriented. If the client appears to need help or doesn’t come to the door, the driver will call the main office and staff will attempt to reach a family member or other emergency contact, including calling local police for a welfare check.
Patching it together
Federal funding for Meals on Wheels was established by the Older Americans Act of 1965, along with a number of other nutrition and social support programs. Meals on Wheels is also supported by a patchwork of state funding and donations from foundations, corporations and generous individuals, but Crone said the need is outstripping resources.
“We’ve been flat-funded for 12 or 13 years,” he said. “There’s just not enough money to go around.” Maine’s population is one of the oldest in the nation, he noted, and the need here for supplemental nutrition programs is expected to grow steadily in coming years.
Crone’s contract this year with BAFS is for about $1.2 million for Meals on Wheels and the community cafes. A little over half of that is federal funds. About $55,000 is from the state budget and the balance from private donations, Crone said.
In 2016, about 4,400 Mainers received home-delivered meals and another 16,600 enjoyed eating at the program’s numerous community cafes sites, according to the nonprofit organization Meals on Wheels America.
Seniors 60 and older who have impaired mobility are eligible for home-delivered meals. Any senior is welcome at the community cafes. There is no low-income requirement for the program and agencies are prohibited from charging for the meals, but Rob Crone said there is a “suggested donation” of $4 per meal for those who can afford it.
“People don’t have to pay at all,” he said, but many do pay at the cafes, including some who pay more than the suggested amount to offset those who can’t pay as much. The average donation for the home delivered meals is far lower, he said, with most recipients so low-income they’re unable to pay anything at all.
It costs about $1,040 to feed a senior citizen for a year through the Meals on Wheels program. Thanks to a recent donation, EAAA has no waiting list for the program, but other areas of the state all have a backlog of people waiting to enroll, Crone said.
For Dottie Ham, paying for her meals is not an option. “I’d like to, but I haven’t got the money,” she said. The hot meals from Meals on Wheels are the foundation of her diet. She fills in around the edges with canned soup and other inexpensive choices. And, fortunately, she’ll soon be receiving a monthly box of free commodity food from EAAA, thanks to a different federal program aimed at feeding hungry older Americans.