While many Jewish institutions across New Jersey have shut their doors due to Covid-19 forced restrictions, the Meals on Wheels program, which delivers ready-to-eat Glatt kosher meals for home-bound seniors, keeps rolling along. Not only that, during this time of quarantine and social separation, the drivers’ roles have added significance: In some cases, they’re the residents’ sole link to the outside world.
“I’m very proud of our program and what we have done during this coronavirus crisis,” said Joanne Glassoff, a resident of Toms River, who oversees Meals on Wheels for Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) of Greater Monmouth County. “A lot of people have really pulled together.”
According to the JFCS website, the program provides food to clients in need in the Covered Bridge and Greenbriar communities in Marlboro, and throughout Monmouth County, most weeks from Monday through Friday. The meals are catered by Exquisite Caterers of Marlboro and picked up for delivery at the Marlboro Jewish Center.
Dealing with Covid-19 has both changed everything and produced an element of pikuach nefesh, saving a life. Concerned about Gov. Phil Murphy’s impending “Stay at Home” order, Glassoff was given special permission by Rabbi Michael Pont of the Marlboro Jewish Center to deliver two weeks of meals to over 80 clients on March 21, even though it was Shabbat.
“It really was a special delivery,” Glassoff told NJJN. “We thank our caterer, the Marlboro Jewish Center, and Rabbi Pont for helping us out. We know we are essential under the governor’s rules, but we wanted to reduce our delivery trips.” Glassoff also mentioned the role of her program’s kitchen site coordinator, Marisa Kraus, for ensuring that such a large meal distribution go smoothly. They are planning to conduct a similar delivery on April 6, with Passover meals, both fresh and frozen, for clients.
The drivers wear gloves while making deliveries and call the recipient when they arrive at the residence. They ring the bell, watch from afar as the recipient takes the package inside, and then call to confirm the recipient is OK. “As long as we are dealing with the virus, this is our procedure,” Glassoff said.
In addition to her drivers’ phone conversations with the residents, Glassoff also has two volunteers who check in with her clients on a weekly basis. Clients receive a monthly charge of $4 per meal, but they pay what they are able as a donation.
Sara Ullman, who serves as the Meals on Wheels Coordinator for Jewish Family Services (JFS) of Middlesex County, credited her pool of nearly 100 volunteers with ensuring that the Monday-through-Friday deliveries have been uninterrupted during the crisis.
“We will continue what we are doing for as long as we can,” said Ullman, a resident of East Brunswick. “Our volunteers have been outstanding and most have stayed with us through all of this and are a connection to our clients.” She added that although they will not deliver meals over Passover, they will “be back right after that.”
The program is catered by the Orchid Kosher Restaurant in Metuchen, and the meals are delivered to both JFS offices in Milltown and Monroe. “We serve our clients in Highland Park to Woodbridge out of Milltown and a truck also goes to our office in Monroe to serve those in that area,” according to Ullman, who has been involved with Meals on Wheels since 2003.
Clients are asked to donate an average of $3 per meal, though on a sliding scale, Ullman said. “People pay what they can. We do have some who are unable to pay.”
And like all agencies, JFS of Middlesex is doing as much as possible to protect its volunteers. “We call ahead to tell a client the meals will be delivered,” she said. “All our drivers wear gloves, ring the bell, and watch to confirm the meals have been received.”
The Meals on Wheels program is administered by agencies in each county. Eighty-five people receive Meals on Wheels in Union, according to Tom Beck, executive director of JFS of Central New Jersey. Staff members at the YM-YWHA of Union County prepare the meals, and “The Y has assured us they will continue in this role,” he said in a telephone interview with NJJN. “We are very fortunate.”
Beck called the drivers’ role “invaluable” since they’re sometimes the only person interacting with a client. Drivers are the agency’s first line of defense, he said — they check on residents’ health and well-being and report any issues to JFS.
Beck said he employs four people to deliver the meals — one driver and one person per delivery vehicle to take the meals to a residence or apartment. Packages are left at the door after the drivers ring the doorbell or knock.
“Our drivers have been given instructions not to get close, shake hands, and stop all physical contact,” he said.
Just about all clients receive one subsidized meal five days a week, but Beck said new safeguards were recently added “in case we run into issues in the near future” like having to miss a delivery — JFS will include an extra frozen meal.
Holocaust survivors receive three extra meals for the weekend, subsidized by the Claims Conference, an organization that aids in the receipt of compensation and restitution for survivors, and “We have a few private clients who pay $9 a meal, and some do offer donations,” said Beck.
Said Glassoff, of Monmouth’s JFCS, “In this challenging time, it’s been great to see all the people in Monmouth County get together to help those who need it.”