Samantha Maxfield, left, and Melissa Smith load frozen meals into the back of a car at SeniorsPlus in Lewiston on Friday morning. SeniorsPlus does not typically deliver meals on Fridays, but workers did because the food has been in such high demand. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — The Meals on Wheels program at SeniorsPlus is in overdrive.

This time last year the staff was producing 800 frozen meals a day but, under the COVID-19 pandemic, that number has grown to 1,800 meals served in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties every day.

“We are getting a lot more referrals, people are calling and needing meals,” SeniorsPlus President and CEO Betsy Sawyer-Manter said. “People who were, in the past, that were able to go out and get their own food aren’t able to do that because they have some type of health condition that requires them to self-isolate right now and shouldn’t put themselves at any risk. That’s a new group of people that we haven’t seen in the past.”

Sawyer-Manter said some of the new clients include younger adults with disabilities and some adults who may have been exposed to the virus and are self-isolating.

Instead of delivering just one meal a day, SeniorsPlus is delivering multiple meals to clients knowing only one meal a day isn’t going to suffice in this pandemic.

Sawyer-Manter said she has heard from clients who are thankful that the Meals on Wheels program is still going because a lot of services that clients are used to using aren’t operating.

“They are very good to me. I can’t ask for any better,” Theresa S. Sirois of Lewiston said. “The only thing is I am on a gluten- free diet, but I can manage their food.”

Sirois, 74, said she’s been using Meals on Wheels for about seven years and doesn’t drive because of various surgeries she has had. It’s a service she uses when her daughter can’t go out and get groceries for her.

Part of the Meals on Wheels program is for delivery drivers to socialize with clients since the delivery driver may be the only person who may interact with the client for a day or even an entire week. In this time of social distancing that has changed, but the delivery drivers are doing their best to socialize with clients anyway.

“We are no longer having face-to-face interaction with our clients,” Sawyer-Manter said. “We are actually dropping off the meal, waiting for them to pick (the meal) up and then going on to the next site. All of our drivers have masks, gloves. They are using hand sanitizer, but we aren’t having any direct contact with the clients. Instead, we are doing well-being checks and reassurance checks. We are calling them to see how they are doing in between meal deliveries to check in with them, making sure they have another human contact during that week and so they don’t feel as isolated.”

Sirois does her best to interact with the delivery drivers through her door, which is made of glass.

“I know they wear masks and they leave the (food) outside and they knock and let me know,” Sirois said. “I enjoy if it’s a wave saying ‘Hi’ and ‘Is everything OK?’ That means a lot to me.”

Rick Fecteau of Auburn builds a set of steps at SeniorsPlus in Lewiston on Friday morning. A refrigerated truck trailer was donated by the Walmart Distribution Center on Thursday and Fecteau volunteered to build the steps so frozen meals could easily be stored in the trailer. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Sirois also checks on the delivery drivers to make sure they are OK. She also prays for them, she said, and donates to SeniorsPlus as much as she can as a way of saying thank you because that money can go and help other seniors in need.

Sawyer-Manter said their kitchen, which usually operates Monday through Thursday, has gone to a Monday through Friday schedule. While they had to cut back on volunteers in the kitchen to comply with social distancing, hours have increased for the staff, with some workers moving from 32 hours to 40 hours or others going from 24 to 32 hours.

Their kitchen on Goddard Road in Lewiston is commercial size, but it can’t handle the extra 1,000 meals needed to meet the demand, so the U.S. Army National Guard is allowing SeniorsPlus to use its gym at its Goddard Road facility to help distribute the meals.

“We recently have worked it out with the National Guard to use some of their space that they have in the gymnasium for our shelf-stable meals,” Sawyer-Manter said.

“We are trying to do two types of meals right now; we are doing our own meals that we are doing in our kitchen and we are freezing those. We are doing shelf-stable meals so that we can deliver those to people, as well, that don’t need to be frozen because not everyone has the capacity to have two weeks of frozen meals in their refrigerator or freezer – they don’t have the capacity to do that. We send a variety of different meal types out to them,” she explained.

On Thursday, Walmart donated a refrigerated trailer for the foreseeable future so the agency can store a greater quantity of frozen meals on-site.

“It’s really great of the Walmart Corp. to do that for us because we were really scrambling, not sure where we were going to find enough freezer space to accommodate all the meals we were trying to make,” Sawyer-Manter said.

“I would encourage (anyone) 100 percent to get a hold of SeniorsPlus and ask for their help,” Sirois said. “I know (SeniorsPlus) would help them out.”

For meal assistance, or to include someone else who needs assistance,  call SeniorsPlus at 1-800-427-1241.


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