When Mike Gammon gets to pawing through the insulated bags in the back of his car, he does it with a purpose. He knows what he’s looking for because his notes have it mapped down to the finest detail.

“She can’t have any mushrooms,” he says, carefully removing a packaged meal from one of the bulky blue bags. “She’s deathly allergic to them. We keep track of all these things.”

A moment later, he’s starting up a Goff Street driveway in Auburn, hauling hot and frozen meals with milk, fruit and crackers on the side. Everything but mushrooms.

“Careful,” Gammon cautions. “They have a little dog who can get a little rambunctious.”

A second later, on cue, the rambunctious beagle appears and right behind him, a small man steps out to accept the delivery.

“It’s for my fiance,” says the man, whose name is Ken. “It comes in handy when I’m at work, I’ll can tell you that. She’s blind so she can’t make dinner for herself. This, she can just throw this in the microwave and it’s good to go. It works out great for us.”

There’s some small talk — Gammon and Ken share a laugh about the dog, which on a previous visit ran loose and had to be captured — but even with that, the stop takes no more than four or five minutes. Gammon is moving on, with other meals for other people.

The SeniorsPlus Meals on Wheels machine has taken to the streets, with hundreds of meals being delivered to people across the tri-county area. Gammon is just one small cog in that great machine, which includes both paid and volunteer workers. Four days a week they gather at their kitchen on Goddard Road in Lewiston, where crews cook, prepare and package the meals before the drivers hit the road. It’s a super-efficient process and a wonder to behold.

“It’s a well-oiled machine,” says Nutrition Manager David Moyer, “like you wouldn’t believe. It’s all about pre-planning and staying ahead.”

‘Best job I ever had’

If all the workers toiling in the Meals on Wheels kitchen were elves, Moyer would be their Santa. He oversees all that goes on, but this isn’t any regular workplace. That much becomes clear at once — too many people are smiling and joking; too many actually whistle while they work.

“Nobody’s forced to be here,” Moyer says. “They’re just wonderful people — a lot of older people who are retired and who want to do something that gives their lives more meaning. They have so much enthusiasm and it’s an infectious feeling among the workers.”

The workers in and around the kitchen tend to back him up on this.

“Best job I ever had,” says Carol Goyette, a 53-year-old lead chef at the facility. She used to manage a dining hall full time. Then her father was stricken by cancer and Carol was moved by the help he got from the Meals on Wheels program.

“For me,” she says, “working here now, it brings it all back around.”

“It isn’t just a job,” says Bob Dubuc, a retired math teacher now baking for Meals on Wheels. “It’s too much fun.”

When he came aboard, Dubuc didn’t have any cooking experience at all, yet there he was, with a fresh batch of oatmeal cookies laid out on a pan and several loaves of chocolate zucchini bread baking in an oven.

He learned his new craft entirely through Meals on Wheels, which Moyer says is just fine — bringing on a rookie allows them to train that person to fit the precise needs of the program. It’s not just about speed and efficiency. All menu items have to be cleared through a dietitian, for starters. The meals are made to be healthy and, of course, to be tasty enough to satisfy a variety of palates.

Today is Tuesday, which means chicken chow mien is on the menu, with a rice medley, pineapple, whole wheat breadsticks, Cinnamon Grahams and apple crumb cake. There’s no turkey in sight, yet the kitchen smells like Thanksgiving.

Tomorrow it will be meatloaf with gravy, lyonnaise potatoes and parslied carrots. Later in the week, haddock Florentine, chili con carne and western omelets.

A common misconception is that Meals on Wheels gives away free food. The organization asks clients for a donation of $3 for each meal, but no one is required to pay. To buy the food it distributes, a majority of the funding for the program — roughly 80 percent — comes from the Older Americans Act and from state and local government. For the remaining 20 percent, the group relies on donations from Meals on Wheels consumers and from the community.

The bottom line, program organizers say, is to get food into the stomachs of people who need it.

“It would be hell for me without them,” says Marie, who received her meal at an apartment complex on Manley Road. “I don’t cook at all anymore. I have arthritis. I’m a disaster in the kitchen. My mother, now she was a cook. If she invited someone to a meal, they never turned her down. My husband was a good cook, too. He was in the Coast Guard.”

Marie, 84, answered the door in a housecoat, a large cat winding around her legs. When Gammon handed over her food — no milk for Marie, said his notes — she promptly put the packages away. At the moment, she was more interested in conversation than in food.

She used to attend school at a one-room schoolhouse in West Auburn, she said, back in a time when kids went barefoot all summer long.

“It was terrible when winter came along,” she said, “and we had to put our shoes back on.”

She led her visitors to a photograph of a lighthouse on her living room wall. For two years, Marie said, she lived in that lighthouse, located near Rockland. Later, she moved back to the Auburn area.

“I used to work at Sampson’s Supermarket,” she said. “I had a good job there with good pay. Mr. Sampson is a nice man.”

When it was time for Gammon to leave, Marie seemed sad to see him go. Social interaction, as it turns out, is one of the three components that make up the Meals on Wheels program. Food, of course, is another. The third is a wellness check: By getting to know each consumer personally, a Meals on Wheels delivery person can detect if something is awry or out of the ordinary. Program volunteers around the country have been lauded numerous times for coming to the aid of the people they serve, either in cases of fire or sickness that might have otherwise gone undetected.

Enriching lives one meal at a time

Everyone is well on Gammon’s route this day. Some like to chat when they receive their food; others offer curt greetings and a simple thank-you. Gammon is OK with both.

“Just about everybody is friendly,” he says. “There are some who can get kind of grumpy now and then.”

Grumpy isn’t on the menu on Cleveland Street where a woman named Marni sits on her sofa with a magazine folded in her lap. She’s in her 80s but also spry and quick-witted. She was an English major at Bates College back in her day and a proofreader at the Lewiston Sun Journal. She banters with Gammon a bit while he sets her food in its customary place.

“It’s a great program,” Marni says. “It’s making me totally lazy, though. I never cook for myself anymore.”

She thinks about that a bit and shrugs it off.

“Hey, I raised six kids,” she says. “I did a lot. I guess I can let somebody else do the cooking.”

Every door Gammon knocks on is answered today. By and large, the people on his route know when to expect him and they take pains to be there to accept delivery.

At one apartment, a second-floor walk-up on Court Street, it was close. The woman who answered the door was wearing a coat and a white knit cap.

“I wish I could stay and talk with you,” she said, “but I’m on my way to another doctor’s appointment.”

The majority of the Meals on Wheels clients are elderly people who can’t physically make their own meals or who can’t afford to. Others are younger folks with a host of physical or emotional afflictions.

“We have one consumer,” Nutrition Manager Moyer wrote in a program presentation, “who is very lively and capable, but she has limited mobility and is legally blind. Before she started with Meals on Wheels she was constantly burning herself at the stove. Now, she can safely stay in her own home and get the nutrition she needs for her diabetes.”

The SeniorsPlus mission is to enrich the lives of seniors and adults with disabilities and to support the independence, dignity and quality of life of those they serve.

On Gammon’s rounds, there is no talk of such matters among the people who receive the food. His route takes about an hour to complete and while Gammon likes to banter with the consumers, he also likes to stay on schedule. People are expecting him to be on time.

The last stop on his route takes him to a house off Washington Street. It’s not yet noon.

“Mary,” Gammon says, with no need to consult his notes. “She’s a nice lady. She always wants to get a hug from me when I’m there.”

Today, though, Mary’s son Jim comes downstairs to receive the food. There are no hugs. Jim thanks Gammon for the delivery and says a few kind words, but the stop takes no more than 30 seconds.

The blue bags in the back of his car are empty now, with all the food from the Meals on Wheels kitchen now on the shelves — or in the bellies — of those who need it.

Before he volunteered to deliver Meals on Wheels, Gammon, retired from General Electric, spent 10 years serving as a mentor with the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program. When he was through with that, he still wanted to volunteer his time, but in a way that would help more people.

“I didn’t want to do it one-on-one anymore,” Gammon says. “When I do that, I get totally involved. It’s like raising a kid. When I started volunteering, I was trying to decide if I wanted to give my time to helping older people or younger people.”

So he did both: He volunteered to help children through a program at Washburn Elementary School and to help older folks through Meals on Wheels. With his day now done, it’s back to the production kitchen in Lewiston, where staff members are still milling around the kitchen. There is no clanging workday bell to release people from their duties. Nobody is rushing for the door or grumbling about the work. You can tell, at a glance, that this is no ordinary workplace.

“Everybody’s here because they want to be,” says Bob Jolicoeur, a 51-year-old retired computer programmer now volunteering in the kitchen. “They’re here because they want to do something to help people.”

Other ways to dine

* Some of the Meals on Wheels meals are packed in bulk and taken to congregate dining sites, called Lunch Plus Cafes, where people can socialize and eat together. There are 10 such dining sites across Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties.

* Also offered is the Around Town Cafes voucher program, where Meals on Wheels is paired with several area eating establishments, including Market Square in South Paris, Chick-a-Dee in Lewiston, and the dining areas at Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center. At these locations, seniors can use a voucher from SeniorsPlus, or a requested donation of $5, and receive a nutritious meal from a special SeniorsPlus menu approved by a registered dietitian. The program has become popular with younger seniors.

Find out more: seniorsplus.org/content/5040/nutrition-services

Where does the food come from?

“In order to get the most out of our dollar we partner with the local Lewiston School Department for rock-bottom pricing on our milk and bread. We are members of the Navigator Group Purchasing Organization that helps us get discount pricing at Sysco Foodservice and PFG Northcenter Foods.

“We also have a great partnership with the Good Shepherd Food Bank where we visit once or twice a week and purchase 500 to 1,000 pounds of food each week for an average of 10 cents a pound. We’re only 10 minutes away.

“The Western Mountain Alliance and the Good Food Council of Lewiston/Auburn are helpful with connecting us to locally grown foods.”

Source: SeniorsPlus Nutrition Manager David Moyer

By the numbers

SeniorsPlus Meals on Wheels kitchen staff makes 500 to 800 meals a day at a delivered cost of $7.80 per meal.

Four SeniorsPlus staff members work in the kitchen, one full time, three part time. Volunteers fill the needs of the rest of the kitchen, with 5 to 15 volunteering on any given day.

SeniorsPlus has more than 500 volunteers throughout the three counties, with at least 350 of those volunteers working in the nutrition department.

94 percent of consumers report that Meals on Wheels has improved or maintained their health, according to a SeniorsPlus study.

96 percent of consumers report that the Meals On Wheels visits make their lives better.

90 percent of consumers report that the meals are good or very good.

Learn more: seniorsplus.org/content/5040/nutrition-services

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