Discovering what drives Meals on Wheels
No one requests Meals on Wheels in order to sample exotic or gourmet cuisine. When people sign up for the nonprofit delivery service, it's usually because they need help -- for whatever reason, they're unable to cook for themselves. But that doesn't stop the chefs at Burlington Meals on Wheels from getting creative. The 32-year-old agency employs a kitchen staff of four and an executive director, Peter Carmolli, who enjoys livening up the menu. "Last summer I got a special deal on smoked trout," says the 40-year-old administrator and self-described foodie. "One day we served smoked trout on mesclun greens with a dill Dijon vinaigrette dressing."
Carmolli's mostly elderly clients don't always appreciate this ingenuity, however. Sitting in his tiny office in Burlington's Cathedral Square apartment building, he recalls a time a few years ago when one of the chefs made fajitas for Cinco de Mayo. "I must have gotten a dozen calls," he says, shaking his head. "They were asking, 'What is this uncooked dough?' I said, 'No more fajitas. They're not ready for that.'"
Carmolli still serves moussaka, a Greek dish, but he disguises it. "We don't call it that," he confides. "We call it something that people like, like 'Mediterranean beef.'"
Still, Carmolli and the staff and volunteers at Burlington Meals on Wheels understand they're providing more than just food. The service is a lifeline for its recipients; it allows them to remain in their homes and stay connected to the outside world through the daily visits from volunteers. And at $3.50 for a hot dinner -- $5.50 if you add a supper of salad and a sandwich -- it's a heck of a deal. "We can feed one person for an entire year for less than it costs to spend one day in the hospital," boasts Carmolli.
Interestingly, this was not the purpose of the original dinner-delivery system. According to the website for the Meals on Wheels Association of America, the term originated in England during the German blitz of World War II. As Brits lost their homes, and therefore their ability to cook, in bombing raids, the Women's Volunteer Service for Civil Defense began handing out food and delivering refreshments to servicemen. This organized nutrition program soon became known as Meals on Wheels. The idea spread to the United States in 1954, when a program was launched in Philadelphia.
Burlington's MOW opened for business in a church basement in 1972. It's one of several such groups throughout the state, all of which operate independently. The Burlington agency covers Burlington, South Burlington, Shelburne, Charlotte and Winooski. In the beginning, BMOW produced 20 meals a week for four clients. Today the group serves more than 300 meals a day to more than 200 recipients. During the week of my recent visit, it distributed 1795 meals.
Needless to say, the Burling-ton Meals on Wheels kitchen is busy, especially from 6 to 10 a.m. The food has to be ready by the time the drivers arrive around 10. When I show up for a tour at 7:30, hot chef Lisa Best is cutting turkey on a large, industrial slicer, while cold chef -- and former city councilor -- Bill Stahl races around preparing hard-boiled eggs and potato salad. The two youthful kitchen aides, both of whom play in local bands, prep food at a large stainless-steel table and wash dishes. A funky mix of rock, pop, hip-hop and reggae plays over the kitchen stereo.
Carmolli sits down with me for an interview but soon jumps up to show off the 1344-square-foot space, which was built specifically for BMOW in the basement of Cathedral Square. It houses the commercial-grade kitchen, a small office, dry storage and a walk-in fridge. We stop at the vegetable steamer, before the chefs load the "California blend" of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots -- one of the only items on today's menu that isn't made from scratch.
"We try to make the vegetables soft enough that you can crush them between your pinkie and your thumb," Carmolli says. "Our biggest complaint is that our vegetables are too hard. Our second-biggest? That our vegetables are too soft."
Indeed, BMOW deals with some fussy clients. Carmolli and his staff try to accommodate everyone, often making separate meals for people who don't eat ham, or turkey, or can't have dairy. A sheet of legal paper on the fridge outlines the mind-boggling array of meal recipients' dietary requirements and preferences. The paper, covered in color-coded notations, and neat pieces of white tape that obscure some names, is clearly the work of a highly organized mind.
Before joining BMOW in 1998, Carmolli worked in finance -- hardly surprising considering his nit-picky attention to detail. When we return to his office, he shows me a slightly yellowed index card he keeps taped above his desk, just below his Vermont Expos schedule. On it are the numbers of meals the kitchen has prepared each year since 1998 -- 51,236 that year, compared to 93,222 in 2003 -- and the exact cost per meal: $3.26 in 1998, down to $3.04 last year. Though MOW charges more than that, only a fraction of the clients can actually pay. The remainder comes from grants and fundraising.
When I express my amazement that the meals are so inexpensive, Carmolli quickly credits the most important Meals on Wheels ingredient: "The volunteers are our lifeblood," he says. "Without them, we close tomorrow."
MOW volunteers generally deliver meals one day each month, roughly from 10:15 until noon. Carmolli estimates that around 200 to 300 volunteers deliver meals in the summer months. The number drops to as low as 150 in the winter, because most of the drivers are retired and fly south to escape the cold months.
A few minutes before 10, while Carmolli and the kitchen staff are scooping four ounces each of turkey, stuffing, gravy and veggies into little trays, the volunteers appear in the hallway. Nancy Mitchell, the seventy- something volunteer coordinator, has been delivering meals since 1972. I ask if she's had any interesting experiences during deliveries. "I've found a few of them incapacitated," she says sadly.
Another time she had to call the police when a client's addled wife didn't recognize her and wouldn't open the door to receive the meal. Mitchell suspected the husband was upstairs sick, and she was right. An ambulance took the gentleman to the hospital and he died there shortly afterwards.
Only two clients have ever been found dead by a volunteer, Carmolli says -- a small number, given the population BMOW serves.
Moments later, the hallway is packed with aging volunteers. Many of them got involved through their churches and have been doing this for years. They carry coolers full of hot meals to the cars, along with brown bags containing milk or juice, bread, butter and dessert, which today is a cranberry muffin. Some clients will receive white bags, which also hold a supper of hard-boiled eggs and bread, potato salad, more milk or juice and more dessert.
As she places the cooler in her white Honda SUV, one woman affixes a "Caution: Meals on Wheels" sign to the back windshield. She appears to be the only volunteer with supernatural help: A faded piece of paper on her window reads, "Muggle Transport, Courtesy of the Ministry of Magic."
Mitchell has agreed to let me tag along with her and her friend Elsie Simonds this morning. Mitchell's driving; Simonds is handing over the food. We head up North Avenue toward the New North End in Mitchell's blue Chevy Monte Carlo. On the way, the women explain that, though they check in with everyone when distributing meals, there really isn't much time to visit. Clients call to complain if lunch is late.
Besides, says Mitchell, sometimes you don't want to talk. She recalls a man who always came to the door in his underwear. BMOW put a notice on his delivery card. "It said, 'It is advisable that no MOW volunteer go inside his door,'" she tells me.
I accompany Simonds to a few doors hoping to talk to some clients, but the exchanges are always short. "Hi!" "Beautiful day, isn't it?" "Thanks a lot."
Later I do speak with two recipients, both of whom say they love the meals and the people who deliver them. Sixty-six-year-old Helen Sadlier has received MOW for a year and a half. She especially likes the meatloaf, and fondly remembers the time volunteers brought her a "survival bag" during a snowstorm. Eleonore Hasse, 92, has been on MOW since a bad fall last November. "I lived in Oregon," she tells me. "They had Meals on Wheels there, and they were nothing like this. They'd have the same thing three days in a row. These are wonderful."
After we finish our route, Mitchell and I head to the Shanty on the Shore, where she's meeting some of her MOW friends for lunch. We're joined by JoAnn Murray, a retired assistant vice president of mortgages at Key Bank, who promptly hands us two recipes. One is for a low-carb "Unpotato Salad," the other for "South Beach Mashed 'Potatoes.'"
Murray has been involved with Meals on Wheels for 18 years and is eager to share her own stories. "One lady, I came to the door and she handed me a flashlight," she says. "I thought, oh gosh, is she going to ask me to put in her ear medication? But she asked me to look at the thermostat."
Murray seems deeply affected by the people she's served. "When you read in the paper that one of them has died," she says, "you feel like you've lost a friend." I ask if she'd ever take Meals on Wheels. Murray laughs nervously and dodges the question. "I hope I never have to."