While many Jewish institutions across New Jersey have closed due to COVID-19 forced restrictions, the kosher Meals on Wheels program keeps driving. The delivery program provides ready-to-eat Glatt kosher meals for home-bound seniors.
In addition, 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.
“Meals on Wheels will continue to function and is our clients’ lifeline during all this,” said Sharon Gordon, chief program officer at the JCC MetroWest in West Orange. The JCC has closed its doors until at least March 30, which means the shuttering of all senior programs, including a drop-in lunch as well as daily social, cultural, and recreational events. Now the drivers are relied on “even more,” Gordon said.
The Meals on Wheels program is administered by agencies in each county. In Union 85 people receive kosher Meals on Wheels, according to Tom Beck, executive director of Jewish Family Service (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 — they check on residents’ health and well-being and report any issues to JFS.
“Our drivers have been given instructions not to get close, shake hands, and stop all physical contact,” he said. Packages are left at the door with the ring of a bell or knock.
He 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. Just about all clients receive one subsidized meal five days a week. New safeguards were added this week — his staff is delivering an extra meal, a frozen one in addition to one hot, “in case we run into issues in the near future,” Beck said.
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.
“We have a few private clients who pay $9 a meal, and some do offer donations,” said Beck. County agencies and Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ help fund the Meals on Wheels program for local recipients.
In Essex County, meals are prepared by the Jewish Community Housing Corporation of Metropolitan NJ and delivered to Daughters of Israel in West Orange for distribution to some 75 recipients.
“With so much shut down, our drivers are our clients’ only real link to the outside world,” said Lenny Raff, supervisor of vehicles at Daughters of Israel. Any irregularities or causes for concern are reported to staff members at the JCC.
“We always have wanted the drivers to look in on our clients when delivering meals,” said Gordon.
Raff told NJJN that he gets involved with meal deliveries and especially enjoyed programs where clients were picked up and taken out to lunch. Of course, “right now, we can’t do that,” he said.
In Essex County, two drivers are employed to deliver five meals per week. The program is “fully subsidized” so there’s no cost to the clients but “a suggested donation of $4 per day” is asked if a client can afford it, according to Joanne Bramnick, director of Center for Adult Enrichment at JCC MetroWest.
West Windsor resident Estelle Meltzer spoke to NJJN Monday afternoon shortly after delivering a Meals on Wheels package to a client in Plainsboro. She said she enjoys serving as a driver for the program, which is overseen by Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) of Greater Mercer County.
“Other programs may not be functioning, but we couldn’t stop,” said Meltzer. JFCS uses a volunteer system to deliver meals to about 25 clients.
“I know the clients I deliver to, and I always enjoy talking to them and seeing if they are OK,” she said. “We can’t have as much contact with them with what is going on, but we still ask, check, and report if anything seems unusual.”
Beth Englezos, manager of senior programs and hunger prevention at JFCS, said that for years the drivers have been integral in alerting them to problems a client might be facing. She said JFCS subsidizes 95 percent of the five meals clients receive weekly, with an unknown number of paying clients contributing $25 per week for five hot meals.
“Our drivers are as important as anyone in our support system,” she said. The food is prepared at Greenwood House in Ewing. New safety measures include drivers wearing gloves and gloved attendants bringing the food from Greenwood House to the driver’s car. Also, drivers are instructed to ring the bell or knock and leave the delivery at the door.
Dov Ben-Shimon, executive vice president/CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, described Meals on Wheels as a “critical lifeline.”
“It’s a powerful symbol of what a Jewish community stands for, and we’re committed to making sure that this vital service continues,” he wrote to NJJN in an email. “We’re grateful to our community partners who provide this delivery.”