FULTON — For hundreds of Oswego County seniors a trip to one of Oswego County Opportunities (OCO) Dining and Activity Centers or a knock on the door from their home delivered meal driver is the highlight of the day. A nutritious meal and some friendly conversation was something to look forward to.
In early March OCO Nutrition Services, in collaboration with Office for the Aging, was delivering approximately 1,000 meals to 500 seniors and hosted dozens more each day for lunch and activities at its dining centers. When the COVID-19 outbreak hit Oswego County everything changed… dining and activity centers closed, home delivered meal drivers couldn’t come in for a quick hello, and the demand for home delivered meals increased dramatically.
With so many seniors depending on OCO for their daily meals the agency’s Nutrition Services staff went into action.
“We immediately talked with Sara Sunday and the staff at Oswego County Office for the Aging (OFA),” said Brian Coleman, director of OCO Health and Nutrition Services. “OFA has been a great partner. We are maintaining regular communication with them and they have been tremendous in working with us and troubleshooting issues as they arise.”
The issues facing OCO’s Nutrition Services were many as demand for home delivered meals soared by 20%. More meals meant more food, more prep time, more storage and increased distribution.
“Internally, we have made adjustments to our production methods including streamlining the menu to accommodate the increased need,” explained Lori Halstead, coordinator of OCO Nutrition Services. “More meals equaled more food so we created more storage space to ensure that we have enough food on hand.”
In addition to streamlining production a number of changes were made to adhere to social distancing and other guidelines. Production and meal bagging lines were modified so that staff could maintain a safe distance from one another. Drivers arrive at staggered intervals for meal pickup and coolers are brought outside so that the drivers did not need to enter the kitchen area. Vendors delivering products to the kitchen are required to wear a mask to enter or are asked to leave their delivery on the loading dock.
“We’re going above and beyond to ensure the health and safety of our staff and our clients,” said Halstead. “Safety and sanitation have always been first and foremost in our kitchen, but the routines have become more stringent. OCO has ensured that ample supplies of hand soap, hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes and sprays, gloves and masks are available. All staff wear masks and gloves while preparing, bagging, and distributing meals. Surfaces are sanitized regularly throughout the day and upon return to the kitchen the coolers are thoroughly sanitized outside before being brought back in to the building.”
On the distribution side, delivery routes were added, including delivering breakfast and lunch to the Fulton and Oswego YMCA programs while they are providing childcare for first responders.
To meet the need for more drivers Dining and Activity Center managers and drivers from OCO’s Courier Service began delivering meals, OFA coordinated with the Oswego County Sheriff’s Department to deliver meals on the Phoenix volunteer route and, as always, community volunteers came through. “Most of our volunteers are continuing to deliver meals and we’ve been fortunate to have a tremendous number of people offering to volunteer. We recently received a donation of cookies from the Girl Scouts which was tremendous and will be a nice treat. We greatly appreciate the support of the community and our dedicated volunteers. Our volunteers are a tremendous resource,” said Halstead.
Halstead also explained that when delivering meals drivers are leaving the meals in a safe location outside of the clients’ home and wait for the client to safely pick up the meal. Drivers are equipped with gloves, masks and hand sanitizer which they are using between deliveries. Additionally, drivers are wiping down frequently touched surfaces on the vehicle and the end of their shift.
With the increased demand for the home delivered meals program met program staff, along with OFA, addressed the challenge of getting meals to seniors that visited the OCO’s Dining and Activity Centers. To do so Activity and Dining Center managers established a meal pick-up service.
“It’s an ideal set up, explained Halstead. “It is safe for the manager and the clients. Our seniors call ahead to reserve the meal and it is picked up the next day. A table is placed outside so that clients are not gathering in the center but can talk with the manager from a safe distance. By still having this contact with the seniors, the managers can also find out what other needs the clients may have. We have given out toilet paper and extra foods to those in need both from OFA and our own pantry. One senior picks up a meal everyday just so that he can wave to the manager through the window. He misses the friendships and socialization from attending the center.”
Socialization has always been an important integral part of OCO’s Dining and Activity Centers and the home delivered meal service. These programs provide much more than a meal, they serve as a daily well-being check. It is a reassurance for families who can’t be with their loved ones, knowing that someone is checking on them daily. With the new process for home delivery that piece was missing. To fill that void Halstead and her staff established a Friendly Caller Service.
“Staff working from home are making calls to our home delivered meal clients,” said Halstead. “It’s a friendly voice and someone for seniors who are home alone to chat with. The callers are able to find out if our clients have immediate needs beyond the meal and if necessary can refer the clients to the many resources that are available in the county. We work closely with OFA to address any urgent client needs that are identified. The service has been well received. To date we’ve made over 1,200 calls to seniors and they look forward to hearing from us.”
“It has certainly been a challenge,” continued Coleman. “I can’t say enough about the support we have received from OFA. Our collaboration with Sara and her staff have made it possible for us to continue our services during these trying times. With the support of OFA and our other funders, including United Way of Greater Oswego County, and Meals on Wheels America, we are able to assure our seniors that they can count on OCO Nutrition Services for a nutritious meal and friendly voice.”
OCO provides 50-plus services that people can access safely and securely. Check the website for updates on program schedules and community resources to help people get through this difficult time: https://www.oco.org/covid-19-updates Call the hotline 1-877-342-7618 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday through Friday for assistance with basic needs. -OCOHere4You