ST. JOHNSBURY — Demand for more than double the usual amount of Meals on Wheels deliveries continues — and the Northeast Kingdom Council on Aging has been able to meet the need thanks to many community partners who have stepped up to take care of home-bound seniors and others who rely on the program.

More than 1,500 people across the NEK have had meals delivered to them, thanks to the expanded effort.

Laura Valcour, director of Nutrition and Wellness for the Northeast Kingdom Council on Aging, said the saying “We are stronger together,” rings true for the incredible response the council has seen in meeting its needs to provide Meals on Wheels since the Coronavirus pandemic hit more than two months ago.

For perspective on how radically the demand has changed, in February (pre-pandemic) an average of 9,100 meals were sent out a month.

In April, that figure was 21,278 and it’s holding steady this month, said Valcour.

“That right there will tell you how busy it’s been,” she said.

Out the gate, the Meals on Wheels demand spiked as seniors and those with pre-existing health conditions were warned to stay home and restrict activities to steer clear of the Coronavirus.

One of the critical additions to the meal preparation and distribution program has been Burke Mountain Academy.

BMA Pitches In Big-Time

Valcour said the NEK Council on Aging received an email from Chef Peter Ireland at Burke Mountain Academy (BMA), saying, “We’ve got staff here. We’ve had to close the school because of COVID. Do you need help?”

“Talk about perfect timing!” said Valcour. “We asked them to supply six different sites.”

BMA has been cooking meals and also “helping deliver the Lowell-Troy route,” said Valcour.

The Council is paying for the food and the labor — keeping the BMA staff in the kitchen employed, and their work is feeding seniors and others who rely on the Meals on Wheels deliveries.

“So we were able to help a local business and they were helping us in turn,” Valcour explained of the perfectly timed arrangement. “We had well over doubled in Derby (for meal demand)” and needed help, she said.

BMA is continuing to support two NEK meal sites, as well as deliver the Lowell-Troy route for the agency.

The independent ski racing high school shared news of its kitchen staff working to crank out 2,500 meals a week for Meals on Wheels recently, noting, “When BMA’s campus closed abruptly at the end of March due to the emerging COVID-19 situation, Executive Chef Peter Ireland ‘92 wasted no time figuring out how to shift gears from cranking out 300 meals a day for student/athletes to 2,500 meals a week for senior citizens of the Northeast Kingdom.”

“The kitchen in BMA’s dining hall has been busy in the weeks since the school’s closing as Peter, Sous Chef Nate Maleski, and cook Jonathan Kimball slice, dice, boil and broil happily away to meet the ever-increasing needs of Meals on Wheels,” the BMA news update stated. “Academy staff joined in supporting the effort by volunteering to deliver the meals in BMA vans to private homes and meal sites from Troy, VT to Ryegate, VT.”

Across the region, both the number of people requesting meals, plus the number of meals people are being given have increased — since people who are vulnerable are not able to shop and get out like they previously could due to the virus risk, explained Valcour.

People who had been receiving 4-5 meals a week are now getting 9-10 meals weekly.

Many Local Businesses Bolster Effort

Valcour said, “Like Burke Mountain Academy, we’ve also had other food partners in the community that have helped us with food storage.”

“We were concerned about a backup supply just in case something were to happen,” she said of the fears over food supply shortages earlier in the pandemic.

Valcour said St. Johnsbury Academy made its Hilltopper Restaurant freezers available for the Meals on Wheels program, as did the Union Baptist Church in Waterford, and the Kingdom Recovery Center, also known as Dr. Bob’s Home, in St. Johnsbury, and the North Country Career Center at the high school in Newport.

“Between those four locations, we had close to 2,000 meals for backup frozen meals,” said Valcour, of the nutritionally balanced meals ready to be distributed, and stocked up in case of shortages.

A total of 16 meal sites operated through the NEK Council on Aging are continuing to produce meals for the program, and are undergoing training with the State of Vermont Department of Labor to be certified for COVID Safety.

Two meal sites that had been strictly congregate have pivoted to delivery as well, the Barton site and the Orleans Lake Region site, said Valcour.

“All of the meal sites obviously have increased twofold, and that speaks for our meal sites,” said Valcour of the staff’s ability to crank up production so quickly to take care of people. “I know of the meal sites that at least four of them have meal site managers that have been there 20-plus years.”

She said, “The fact that we’ve had this experience … their response was absolutely incredible. We’re not talking about a lot of notice here, we’re talking about a few days’ notice.”

“They stepped up to the plate, they’re using their same staff, they’re utilizing the same staff in their kitchens — new procedures for social distancing were in place in a couple of days, I’m not kidding. They had to change their whole work pattern,” said Valcour.

She said the Council on Aging has been blessed with “so many community partners … I love that term we’re stronger together — it is the truth.”

When the St. Johnsbury House meal site had to close for three weeks due to a resident in the apartment building having COVID-19, the meal sites in Orleans and West Burke picked up the extra work without a hiccup, said Valcour.

“They were working weekends,” Valcour said of the other meal sites, to make sure they had enough meals cranking out to cover the need.

The program out of the St. Johnsbury House also provides Meals on Wheels to people in the Gilman-Lunenburg area since their senior center closed, going on two years ago, said Valcour.

Three other businesses who have contributed to help with emergency food bags are Passumpsic Bank, North Country Hospital and Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, said Valcour.

“NVRH and Passumpsic and our agency partnered together to get emergency meal bags,” to 175 people, said Valcour.

Bags with enough food for three meals, containing shelf-stable food, have been created and distributed; the first 175 bags through NVRH and Passumpsic, and a second round with North Country and Passumpsic is seeing another 100 emergency food bags put together, said Valcour, saying the second round will go out soon.

Valcour said the volunteer drivers have done yeoman’s’ work, and are keeping social distance, and having to wear masks, gloves, and use hand sanitizer often — the new critical tools of the trade.

Bags with the needed equipment have been given out to drivers, including little bags of Hershey’s kisses, “because we can’t give them hugs, so we gave them kisses!” she said.

Volunteers, CARES Act Funding

Help and additional volunteer offers have been “coming out of the woodwork,” said Valcour.

A brigade of 383 volunteers is now at the ready delivering Meals on Wheels across the region.

With funding through the CARES Act which the Council on Aging received, they bought new freezers and refrigerators for most of their meal sites across the NEK so they have more back up storage with commercial size appliances, said Valcour.

The equipment was bought from a Vermont business.

“It’s been amazing,” said Valcour, who said in recent days, “I don’t see that we have decreased numbers.”

She said, “We’re working on plans for re-opening,” the meal sites across the NEK when the governor gives the green light.

But for now, the many partnerships and help across the NEK, which has continued to feed home-bound people marches on, “It’s really bonded our community,” said Valcour of the efforts.

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