More Than A Meal: Meals on Wheels San Francisco Warms Stomachs And Hearts

July 03, 2020

Crystal Chan is an 18-year-old writer and activist who is passionate about advocating for social equity. She is the Founder and Executive Director of SPACE 4 US, a community organization that democratizes professional opportunities by connecting underserved students with career exploration resources. Crystal is also an avid writer who strives to use storytelling as a vehicle for social change. She writes for her school newspaper and represents District 7 on the San Francisco Youth Commission, a body of 17 young people that advises the San Francisco Mayor and Board of Supervisors on policies impacting San Francisco’s youth. In her free time, she loves writing, reading, knitting, and hiking!

Video produced for Meals on Wheels San Francisco, by mashNY Productions.

At 80 years old, Iona is still living her best life. She reads, types, and exercises daily, and regularly volunteers to read books to kids in her neighborhood. However, she cannot cook for herself because of an eye condition that causes severe vision loss, so she relies on Meals on Wheels San Francisco (MOWSF) for her everyday meals.

Iona is one of over 4,300 seniors who receive daily meals from MOWSF. Founded in 1970, MOWSF is a nonprofit organization that delivers tailored meals and groceries to homebound seniors in San Francisco and helps them live healthy and independent lives. It’s one of the largest home-delivered meal providers for seniors in the city, having served over 2.2 million meals in 2019. It’s also the only organization in San Francisco that offers two home-delivered meals a day, seven days a week. 

Normally, MOWSF accepts about 30 to 50 new clients a week. The COVID-19 crisis has more than doubled the number of senior citizens in need of meals. As a result, MOWSF has expanded its programs to serve even more seniors. 

“We had to open up a second temporary packaging facility so that we can distance out our kitchen staff,” Director of Marketing and Communications Jim Oswald said. “It’s been quite an operation. But I have to say, not a single senior has missed a meal.” 

(Courtesy of Meals on Wheels San Francisco)

Not only do MOWSF employees and volunteers deliver meals, but they also deliver warmth. A core part of the MOWSF meal delivery program is the relationships that volunteers build with the seniors. When volunteers deliver meals, they engage in conversations and check in on their clients’ well-being. They also help out with minor home repairs, purchasing furniture, or any other needs that seniors may have. For instance, when Iona’s refrigerator stopped working, MOWSF bought her a new refrigerator. Another client, Victoria, lives in an area where there is a lot of foot traffic with people who aren’t social distancing, so she is afraid to go out and purchase food for her cat. After learning about her needs, MOWSF has been bringing her cat supplies in addition to her everyday meals. 

“It’s really more than a meal,” Jim said. “It’s making sure that the seniors can live safely in whatever their home environment is.” 

The mission of MOWSF wouldn’t be possible without its drivers, who deliver meals to seniors every day, rain or shine. 

“I have a deep respect for folks who are able to take care of individuals,” Jim said. “I’m talking about our drivers who go out daily – they’re in the Tenderloin, they’re in the Presidio, they’re in the Bayview. Wherever our clients are, so are our drivers.” 

Due to COVID-19, MOWSF drivers are doing contactless delivery and can’t check-in to see if their seniors are doing alright. About 70 percent of the clients enrolled in MOWSF programs live alone, and Jim noted that sheltering-in-place has “caused more isolation issues” for senior citizens. To ensure that clients receive the care they need during these times, MOWSF launched its Friendly Social Caller program, where volunteers check in with seniors over the phone at least once a week. 

Even though drivers and seniors can’t physically interact with each other, the bond between them is stronger than ever. Jim, a MOWSF driver, was delivering meals to senior clients Tricia and her husband when he found a special gift they had left him outside of their front door. Inside the box were two home-made cloth face masks along with a note from Tricia that said: Meals on Wheels Driver – for you and your mate. I made these washable masks for shopping and safety – keep well and thank you for your service. When you need more – phone me, and I’ll leave it in the box. 

(Courtesy of Meals on Wheels San Francisco)

Heartwarming stories like these are why Jim Oswald loves his job. In his role, he shares the impact of MOWSF programs with supporters through online publications and social media. His favorite part of the job is visiting clients and learning about their lives. 

“At the end of the day, the seniors are just like we are,” he said. “They were all professional workers, they were your police officers, your school teachers, or working in the postal service. They lived productive lives and now it’s our turn to take care of them because they deserve it. It’s the right thing to do.” 

MOWSF is already making a tremendous impact on the lives of seniors citywide. Currently, the nonprofit provides approximately 10,000 meals a day, and they are in the process of building a new industrial facility that will allow them to serve upwards of 20,000 meals a day. 

“We’re building this kitchen so that we can continue to serve the growing aging community in San Francisco,” Jim said. “MOWSF is a lifestyle. We’re all about community, and the beauty is that we get to serve all these different communities for many more decades to come.” 

Do you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and would like to volunteer with Meals on Wheels San Francisco? Call seniors once a week as part of the Friendly Social Caller program or help deliver groceries for the Grocery Shopper initiative. You can also donate to support their general programs or donate to support their new kitchen facility and have your name displayed on the walkway!