For five decades, Ridgefield residents who are physically unable to prepare their own meals have benefited from a valuable town resource.

Founded in 1972, Ridgefield’s Meals On Wheels program has relied on donations, a small part-time staff and lots of volunteers to serve lunch and dinner to residents who are either elderly, disabled, infirm, or recovering from surgery or illness.

During the last month and a half, those meals are being prepared, delivered and served in never-before-seen numbers.

“Two weeks ago, we reached a record high of just under 1,000 meals [in one week], and it has leveled out a little this past week,” said Dean Miller, the chairman of Meals On Wheels’ board of directors. “We expect it to be steady, but we have backup plans ready in case it increases significantly. Our policy has been to never turn anyone away for any reason, and we have no plans to change it.”

Hilary Aronow, a member of the board of directors who handles public relations, attributes the client escalation to preventive measures aimed at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.

“The recent increase is largely from seniors and other at-risk residents who have chosen to shelter-in-place during the pandemic,” Aronow said. “Our mission is to serve anyone in Ridgefield who can’t prepare their own meals, short-term or long-term, and regardless of age or income. That population has expanded significantly these past few weeks.”

The rise in clients — many of the referrals come from either RVNAhealth or Ridgefield Social Services — has presented a challenge for Meals On Wheels’ five part-time employees, its registered dietitian, and its cadre of 140-plus volunteers.

“Our employees and volunteers have done an amazing job in preparing and delivering nearly 1,000 meals per week, especially when you consider that two years ago we were only serving 400 a week and we were serving 600 a week earlier this year,” Miller said.

“Although several of our volunteers have chosen to shelter-in-place, a number of new volunteers have signed up and our existing volunteers are working more hours,” Miller added. “Our five part-time employees are working harder than ever.”

Small kitchen

Meeting the increased demand while maintaining COVID-19 safety protocols is another logistical concern.

“We have a small commercial kitchen in Ballard Green and we were running out of room before the crisis,” Aronow said. “We’ve had to get creative and make some temporary changes to handle the large increase in meals. We deliver meals on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and the full teams would typically prepare everything those mornings.

“We’ve now split up into two shifts with fewer people on those days, plus small teams coming in on off-days,” Aronow added. “This not only increases our capacity, but also allows our volunteers to spread out to maintain proper social distance in our small kitchen. But everyone is definitely working harder — for example, instead of making 70 to 80 sandwiches, salads and fruit cups each day, we’re now making up to 140 of each.”

Meals On Wheels has also altered its delivery format.

“Our drivers used to come inside the kitchen to pick up the meals,” Aronow said. “In order to minimize close contact and reduce the number of people in the kitchen at any one time, the drivers now wait outside until their route number is called, and the coolers are brought outside for them to pick up and take to their car for delivery.

“We also wanted to reduce close contact between our drivers and our clients, so we made sure all of our clients had a cooler or insulated bag (some of which were donated by the community) to put outside their door,” Aronow added. “Our drivers now place the meals in the cooler or bag, ring the doorbell and leave. We have a very limited number of clients where we have to bring the meals inside, and we take extra precautions in these cases.”

Restaurants helping

Several Ridgefield restaurants and businesses have come forward to help Meals On Wheels, which receives no state or federal aid. The program relies on donations ($150,000 annually, according to its website) and charges clients 30 percent of the cost of a meal.

“Wooster Hollow Café and Dimitri’s Diner are now providing extra meals, which they have generously donated or charged at cost,” Miller said. “We’ve also received food donations from Cake Box, Ross Bread and many individuals and organizations in town.

“We rely on financial donations to support 70 percent of our operating costs each year,” Miller added. “Since the crisis started, we have received numerous donations from individuals, foundations and organizations. We are fortunate to have the support of such a generous community.”

Easter lamb

Miller was happy that Meals On Wheels was able to fulfill a tradition last month.

“One of the highlights of our program is that local organizations and families sponsor the cost of providing several complimentary holiday meals to all clients during the year,” he said. “We asked our kitchen team if they were still up for making a special Easter meal this year with the extra volume. Their answer was a resounding ‘yes, of course’ so the team prepared a delicious lamb dinner for 100 people, which was sponsored by the Ridgefield Lions Club.”

Miller said the rapid proliferation in clients has accelerated a trend that began two years ago.

“For a long time we were serving about 20,000 meals per year,” he said. “In 2018, we started a client outreach initiative combined with an effort to expand awareness of our program. That year we served a record 24,000 meals, followed by another record of more than 30,000 in 2019.

“We were planning on a small increase in 2020, but now we expect our total to be much higher. We know some of our new clients will cancel service once things return to normal, but we hope many will continue.”