EVANSTON — What was once a bustling dining room each weekday has been empty for eight months and counting, as the COVID-19 pandemic prevents the Uinta Senior Center from reopening for meal service. The senior center kitchen, however, has been busier than ever as five full-time employees prepare meals from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday for delivery to those most vulnerable to illness — senior citizens.
Senior Center Director Aimee Ottley and kitchen manager Sandra Lowe explained that the center has always done some meal delivery for those who were homebound, as homebound status was required to qualify for meal delivery prior to the pandemic. Now, however, the requirements have changed dramatically and anyone over the age of 60 can qualify to have a hot lunch delivered to their door five days a week.
The result of the new guidelines is that the center went from serving about 40 meals in-house and about 130 delivered meals each day to delivering about 250 lunches daily. That increase would be quite a feat on its own, but the center is also providing about 110 breakfasts daily in addition to about 120 frozen meals for dinners and weekends, delivered each Tuesday.
Funding from the CARES Act and the Family First grant supports the program, although the center will gladly accept monetary donations large and small to help with costs. “Food costs have gone up significantly,” said Ottley, while Lowe explained that there have been times throughout the pandemic when it was next to impossible to secure certain ingredients for meals. “We’ve had to get creative to find ways to get what we needed,” she said.
Ottley explained that the deliveries don’t only provide meals for people. “Some of our people are terrified to leave their homes right now,” she said. “Besides a place to eat they’ve lost their social interaction.” A friendly face showing up with a hot lunch each day can mean a lot to folks.
The hundreds of meal deliveries wouldn’t be possible, however, without the assistance of a lot of volunteers. Ottley and Lowe said too many individuals to name and multiple area businesses have stepped up to help throughout the pandemic. Currently, the Evanston area is being broken up into eight daily routes, each with roughly 25-35 lunches to deliver. The Bridger Valley Center also does a meal delivery program, though there are not as many stops and it is handled primarily by staff, without the need for volunteers.
In Evanston, volunteers start arriving at the center about 10:30 a.m. to head out to deliver hot meals that have been stacked and stored in coolers. A route can take a volunteer two to three hours to get through. Lowe said during the summer months and earlier in the pandemic, they had more volunteers and were able to break the deliveries up over 12 routes. However, when school started and they lost some volunteers they had no choice but to cut back to eight routes.
When receiving lunch, many folks also receive a bagged breakfast for the next morning, which can include anything from a cinnamon roll or oatmeal to pancakes and more. Lunches include an entrée, sides and milk. Frozen meals can be requested for dinners or lunches on the days the center is closed. “Our lunches are delicious,” said Ottley as she praised Lowe’s work. “Sandra is phenomenal and works with a nutritionist to prepare nutritious and delicious meals.”
Local businesses that have been involved in multiple ways include those who have allowed employees to remain on the clock while helping out — either on a recurring basis or just once. AutoFarm has provided not only volunteers but vehicles to help get meals out. Arrowhead Dental sent three teams to help out three days a week from March through August.
Trona Valley Credit Union, 1st Bank, LR Communications (formerly NGL), Spire Energy, U.S. Bank and the Uinta County Sheriff’s Office have all donated time and energy to the meal delivery program. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided non-perishable food to help create emergency meal kits for distribution to seniors.
Ottley explained that the meal delivery will continue for the foreseeable future.
“There’s just no way we can open,” she said. “Seniors are the most vulnerable population and we’d only be able to have one person per table in our dining room. For us to be able to open the dining room, we’d need to have COVID totally under control in our community.”
There was a point fairly recently this fall when Ottley, Lowe and center staff had begun making plans to offer dining again at the center. It was felt the county’s COVID numbers were low and it may be possible to begin the reopening process. However, the case numbers started going back up and made it impossible to move forward with any kind of reopening.
Knowing there is really no end in sight to either the pandemic or the center’s meal delivery program, Ottley and Lowe said what they really need is some more help. They’d love to see more businesses participate in delivering meals, even if just on a one-time basis.
They’re especially looking for help for the upcoming holiday season. Unable to host their traditional Thanksgiving dinner on the Wednesday before the holiday, the center instead plans to deliver approximately 500 holiday dinners that day — meaning they’ll need even more volunteers than usual.
Anyone interested in helping out with meal delivery is urged to contact the Uinta Senior Center at 307-789-3553.