Fixing up the building at 1723 Simpson St., the new home for Meals on Wheels of Northeastern Illinois. Photo from Meals on Wheels of Northeastern Illinois

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Evanston-based Meals on Wheels Northeastern Illinois already had plenty on its plate this spring.

The re-branded organization formerly known as Meals at Home fosters health and independence by delivering nutritious meals and medically prescribed diets and other supportive services to individuals who are home-bound, elderly, disabled or temporarily unable to care for their nutritional needs. Nationwide, one in six senior citizens struggles to get the necessary nutrition, nearly 14,000 of them in northeastern Illinois.

In March, MWNEI was on the cusp of a revamp that would allow them to double the number of clients they could serve.

Executive Director Debi Genthe was overseeing the completion of a new food production facility and headquarters set to open on April 20 in Evanston’s Fifth Ward.  New software and equipment – including ovens donated by Kendall College – were in line to help streamline policies and procedures.

The organization’s first-ever food service director was poised to introduce a menu that would balance comfort food with more “modern” choices such as those clients might find at a restaurant, Ms. Genthe says.

An experienced cadre of volunteers was putting the finishing touches on a May 1 fundraiser to be held at the Evanston Art Center.

Then the novel coronavirus showed up.

And everything changed.

The number of vulnerable people in need of food skyrocketed. “In one week alone,” says Ms. Genthe, “the number of clients tripled.” There is no wiggle room in such a situation. “When a client calls, we have to get food there immediately,” she says.

With the quarantine and social distancing in effect, a real-time gala was out of the question. It was, in a way, a perfect storm – a flood of people in need and the MWNEI lifeline stretched to its limit.

Ms. Genthe admits to putting in “some 17-  and 18-hour days,” but the result was workable solutions to both meal delivery issues and the gala dilemma.

Volunteers – 400 last year – are the heart of MWNI. Singly or in pairs, they work two-hour shifts weekly, biweekly or once a month, delivering meals – one cold and one to be reheated – to clients along 14 routes.

In addition to meals, the volunteers bring food for the souls of their clients, 60% of whom qualify for reduced fees for services and many of whom are isolated and lonely. In recent years, MWNEI has added Friendly Visit and grocery shopping programs to their meal deliveries.

Even before the coronavirus, MWNEI was gearing up to deliver 100,000 meals a year – more than twice the 42,000 they have been delivering – along 56 routes to meet the nutritional needs of the growing population of aging baby boomers. But with the virus, Ms. Genthe says they have reached the number of clients she had projected for the end of 2021.   

The staff and volunteers of MWNEI have found ways to cope with the pressure and restrictions resulting from COVID-19. They have modified the delivery schedule: Instead of distributing meals six days a week as before, volunteers drop off frozen meals once a week.

Some 80% of the people MWNEI serves are elderly, Ms. Genthe says. To help clients adjust to the new schedule and to an array of personal challenges posed by the virus, volunteers are keeping in close touch by phone.  They discuss, for instance, which meals to use first if a client lacks freezer space and has to store the frozen foods in the refrigerator.

The 52nd annual fundraiser will be unlike any of its predecessors. Complications from the coronavirus required that the MWNEI leadership and volunteers do a quick turnaround for the May 1 event. Once the idea of hosting an online benefit took hold, the original committee for the gala, though still involved, “took a big step back,” Ms. Genthe says. She hired a production company experienced in producing online events, insisting that computer access to the event be simple and reliable.

As plans for the gala coalesce, excitement is running high among staff and registered guests. Billed as a “dance party,” the evening will begin with virtual cocktails and music provided by a DJ. Attendees will be able to participate in online chats and polls before watching a video presentation of the kitchen facility.

The highlight of the evening will be a presentation and Q and A by Robert Egger, appearing remotely. A renowned expert on hunger, sustainability and non-profit political engagement, Mr. Egger has founded such successful organizations as D.C. Central Kitchen and L.A. Kitchen, which use food donated by hospitality businesses to fuel culinary arts training programs.

D.C. Kitchen, which opened in 1989, has produced more than 40 million meals and helped 2,000 individuals find full-time jobs. Mr. Egger’s not-for-profit endeavors have also spun off other ventures. An L.A. Kitchen-related for-profit competes for food service contracts with an emphasis on opportunities to serve healthy meals for seniors.

Reached in Santa Fe, N. M., Mr. Egger said he remembers Evanston well, having spent time at Northwestern University when he opened one of 57 recycling/meal Campus Kitchens Projects here. 

Mr. Egger will be talking about the need to prepare for the surge in homebound and senior citizens needing proper nutrition. There has been such an emphasis on children’s nutrition, he says, that the “silver tsunami” has been overlooked. “Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 70,” he says, a trend that will continue for the next 10 years. Many of these older adults, lacking sufficient savings, will face malnutrition.

What is needed, he says, is “innovation” of the sort he sees at MWNEI – menus that reflect the faces of an increasingly diverse population, for instance. He calls MWNEI’s new kitchen and plans for expansion of services “audacious” – exactly the kind of approach he sees as necessary going into the future.

Tickets and information, as well as the virtual May 1 gala itself, are online at MealsOnWheelsNEI.org.