Larry Atkinson, left, receives a meal from Erin Youngstrom for the Meals on Wheels program on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Larry Atkinson, left, receives a meal from Erin Youngstrom for the Meals on Wheels program on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

They have the meals, they need the wheels

Meals on Wheels struggles to find drivers

The nationwide worker shortage is hitting charity organizations too, and Juneau’s Meals on Wheels program is in search of volunteers.

Meals on Wheels is a national program administered locally by Catholic Community Service. Matt Walker, who oversees the local program, told the Empire the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically increased the number of seniors signing up for the program.

“We’re doing 200 meals a day, and we’re doing 15 routes,” Walker said. “We need 15 volunteers a day to get all those meals out. Prior to COVID, we had less than half the number of routes that we have now, we’re doing double the amount on a weekly basis, every single day.”

Finding that many drivers can be tricky, especially when there’s a volunteer workforce, Walker said.

“Two weeks ago I had 20 people on vacation,” Walker said.

What’s more, the worker shortage isn’t just impacting the number of volunteers, Walker said, staff positions are open too. Lately, drivers are delivering “shelf-stable” meals of dry goods instead of the hot, cooked meals typically served because CCS can’t find enough cooks. CCS is currently hiring cooks and site managers for the senior center. Walker said congregate meals used to be served at the Juneau Senior Center, but pandemic restrictions shut that down, which in turn led to increased demand for delivered meals.

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On Monday, Erin Youngstrom, an outreach coordinator for CCS, made meal deliveries in the Mendenhall Valley. Youngstrom said the shelf-stable meals aren’t as popular as the hot meals, but the organization just doesn’t have the staff to cook and prepare those meals. CCS hired Foodland IGA supermarket to make sandwiches for the program.

“We didn’t ask for a discount, it’s not a lack of funding for the program, just a lack of personnel,” Youngstrom said.

Meals are delivered at mid-day Monday through Friday, and Youngstrom said Juneau has a high population of retired people who sign up to make deliveries, but there’s a lot of turnover among volunteers. Youngstrom said there’s a misconception that volunteers will be asked to drive daily or weekly routes.

Helen Unruh and John Haywood unload prepared meals St. Paul’s Catholic Church for the Meals on Wheels program on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Helen Unruh and John Haywood unload prepared meals St. Paul’s Catholic Church for the Meals on Wheels program on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

“Volunteering is about do you have an hour, hour and a half once a month?” Youngstrom said. “Truly, do you have like 45 minutes once a month to take on a lunch route?’

Another issue for Juneau is the distance that sometimes needs to be covered, Walker said. The program doesn’t deliver past Auke Bay, but there are seniors in need of meals in every part of town, he said.

“It can be a logistical challenge,” Walker said.

But the program’s coordinators are hoping to raise awareness and attract volunteers who want to help seniors in the community. Both Youngstrom and Walker noted the Meals on Wheels program wasn’t just about delivering food to those in need. Sometimes Meals on Wheels drivers are the only contact some seniors have, Walker said, and visiting people at their homes allows volunteers to check up on them and offer additional services if necessary.

“We want to make sure that people in our community are taken care of,” Walker said. “The people that do this, they really love it because they’ve never driven down some of the roads that they go down, they meet people they would have never met otherwise.”

In the Mendenhall Valley Monday, Larry Atkinson said he was always happy to get his delivery.

“I’m grateful,” said Atkinson, who put on his Vietnam Veteran baseball cap before having his picture taken. “I count it as a blessing to me.”

Catholic Community Service is currently hiring cooks and kitchen staff for the Meals on Wheels program, those looking to apply can call (907)563-6150 or visit ccsak.org/jobs. Those looking to volunteer to deliver for the Meals on Wheels program can email volunteer@ccsak.org or call (907)463-6179.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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