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South Washington County Meals on Wheels program sees changes but keeps moving forward

Meals on Wheels volunteers Lou Bestler (left) and Sherry Mack deliver meals to area residents. The program is changing the meal delivery day for some area residents beginning this month. Bulletin photo by Elena Christensen

Senior dining in south Washington County has seen many changes this year with a new in-home food service for the elderly.

The food program changes have earned positive reviews, but more are on the way.

A new Meals on Wheels provider, Presbyterian Homes, is in its first year of organizing meal delivery to area residents who have difficulty cooking on their own or leaving their home.

Also this year, most Meals on Wheels recipients went from receiving hot meals delivered daily to a weekly delivery of frozen meals. The next step for Presbyterian Homes involves a change in when those meals are delivered to residents in Cottage Grove and surrounding communities.

Changes to the Meals on Wheels program, which provides one prepared meal a day for mostly elderly or disabled residents, have occurred since 2009. Budget reductions and volunteer challenges led to the change in the senior dining provider.

Human Services Inc. had organized Meal on Wheels in Washington County, but a number of funding cuts at HSI led to the decision to stop providing the program, said Jeremy Misener, who supervised the program through HSI.

The Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging distributes federal funds for the program. Last summer the agency awarded the funds to Presbyterian Homes instead of HSI.

Creative Senior Dining, a service of Presbyterian Homes, picked up the Meals on Wheels distribution, and having little experience with volunteer services, it offered Misener a position to continue supervising the program and coordinating volunteers.

The changes that occurred with the transition were slight, but noticeable to Meals on Wheels recipients and volunteers. The local distribution point for delivered meals was changed from Norris Square to the South Washington Senior Center, and frozen meals became more prevalent.

"In a sense, the thing that has been most encouraging and fun to be a part of is getting more experience with the frozen meals," said Misener, "when I'd had the experience with hot meals."

Menu options

Meals on Wheels recipients saw a change in what was delivered to their home.

When seniors receive hot meals, they typically had only one menu option daily. Misener said the majority of citizens prefer the ability to choose their daily meal.

With frozen meals, seniors have a lot of control over the meals they get. There is also more flexibility for volunteers who deliver, because they have more time to deliver frozen meals.

About 90 percent of seniors in the program receive frozen meals weekly, which they can cook any time they want. There are roughly 55 people on the Meals on Wheels program in south Washington County. Nearly all receive frozen meals; about eight still receive hot meals.

"The majority of people who want or need daily hot meals have more physical issues, generally," Misener said. "While those who are more physically or mentally able tend to stay with frozen meals."

Those who receive the hot meals are often nearing the need for more at-home care. They tend not to stay on the program long because they often move into a nursing home, a relative's home or they die, Misener said.

"When someone dies in their home, it is actually kind of a good thing," said Misener. "We help people stay independent in their homes as long as possible. We help them stay healthy."

Creative Senior Dining provides more than just home-delivered meals. The company has provided group lunches at the South Washington Senior Center since January 2009. The meals are free, but donations are accepted.

There are many reasons seniors may eat lunch at the senior center instead of receiving a meal at home.

"Basically, I'm lazy," joked Lucille Jones. She went on to explain that the convenience and community were big factors in her choice to eat at the senior center.

Sandra Ternell, another senior center diner, said the food was very good and easily worth the short trip from Norris Square.

Meal changes

While most of the transition to Creative Senior Dining is complete, the schedule of frozen meal deliveries is set to change, perhaps by late August.

Currently, Stillwater and Bayport residents receive their meals on Tuesdays. Oakdale, Woodbury, Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park and Newport all receive theirs on Wednesdays. Misener wants to change the delivery schedule so Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park and Newport can receive their meals on Thursdays instead. There would be no change for residents in the other communities.

This change may seem minor, but a lot must happen before it can take place.

St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Cottage Grove has agreed to partner with Presbyterian Homes as the Thursday distribution site for frozen meals, but there is still a need for volunteers to bring them to area homes.

Volunteers deliver meals weekly, every other week, or they can fill in for other drivers. Misener hopes to secure 10 reliable people as frozen meal delivery volunteers.

More volunteers

More volunteers will be needed for hot meal deliveries.

In addition, during the week of the schedule change, seniors will have one extra day between deliveries, so the company is coordinating to ensure residents have an extra meal for that week.

Lou Bestler and Sherry Mack, both of Cottage Grove, already volunteer by delivering meals. They had their own route for several years and now substitute when others are away. They both find these deliveries important and appreciate the Meals on Wheels program.

"It's important so these people have some contact with somebody," Bestler said. Although she and Mack no longer deliver regularly, each week both women visit two people to whom they used to take meals.

Mack said a man they deliver to recently told them: "You're my family now."