January 23, 2021


Home Improvement

S.F.’s Meals on Wheels opens new, bigger kitchen

Meals on Wheels was bursting at the seams in its longtime San Francisco kitchen. The nonprofit, which delivers free meals to seniors and disabled people, has seen demand rise as the city’s population ages.

This month the 50-year-old organization moved its cooking operations into a gleaming new industrial kitchen in a dedicated building in the Bayview, down the street from its former space, which it is retaining for offices. The more spacious new facility can produce up to 30,000 meals a day, triple the previous capacity.

While the 35,000-square-foot Sangiacomo Flynn Building, which also includes plenty of storage and space for handling distribution, was seven years in the planning, it is opening just in time as the pandemic has amped up the need for the nonprofit’s services.

“We’ve grown so much and it won’t end,” said Ashley McCumber, Meals on Wheels San Francisco’s executive director. “We want to not have a barrier around capacity for many decades.”

Shelter-in-place orders have necessitated that many more older adults stay home, since they are a vulnerable population. At the height of the pandemic, Meals on Wheels added 100 to 150 new clients a week, compared to 50 before the pandemic. It now serves meals to about 3,700 older and disabled people. It also delivers groceries to about 500 homebound seniors in the city on behalf of the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.

Meals on Wheels also has contracted with the city since July to provide meals and groceries for people who must quarantine because they have COVID-19 or were exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. That adds another 600 to 1,200 people a week to its caseload.

“Meals on Wheels has a deep understanding of people’s needs,” said Shireen McSpadden, executive director of the San Francisco Department of Disability and Aging Services. “They are a well-honed machine. Because they do such great volume, they really understand all aspects of getting food out to people”

Meals on Wheels San Francisco is among 5,000 similar senior nutrition programs nationwide. Each is run independently under the umbrella name Meals on Wheels.

The San Francisco Meals on Wheels operates on an $18.5 million annual budget, about half from government contracts and half from philanthropy. Its 120 employees include 40 kitchen staff.

About 4,000 volunteers a year also chip in. Like many other nonprofits, it saw volunteering slide because of people’s fears of the coronavirus. That’s now started to slowly rebound.

The new $41 million building was paid for by private donors, tax credits and other sources. There’s still a little more fundraising to do.

“The kitchen will allow us to diversify meals a lot more,” McCumber said. He hopes its location near the SF Market wholesale produce center will spawn more partnerships for fresh fruits and vegetables.

“They have so much more capacity with the new kitchen,” McSpadden said. “Now they can mass-produce food, flash-freeze it, store it. For this kind of operation, that storage space is really essential.” At the same time, the bigger space allows room for preparing much fresher food and branching into different types of cuisines, she said.

The organization’s mission is to help older people age in place with dignity. Its staff includes social workers who do initial evaluations of what other services new clients may need. It provides small refrigerators and microwaves for people who need them at home.

“We’re more than a meal for many of our clients,” McCumber said. “A daily safety check, interaction, set of eyes, is almost more important to them and their families.”

San Francisco resident Leia Amidon, 62, who has limited mobility, finds herself looking forward to her Meals on Wheels deliveries, both for the tasty food and the human connection from the volunteers.

Even during the pandemic, when the volunteers stay masked and 6 feet away, she finds it comforting.

“That personal interaction with my delivery staff is so important for someone without family or a support system,” she said. “It’s improved the impact of long-term shelter-in-place isolation, and dispelled my depression because I have someone to look forward to.”

Meals on Wheels said most pandemic deliveries are no-contact, meaning drivers knock on the door, place the bagged meal on the ground, step back at least 6 feet and wait for the recipient to answer and ensure they’re OK. For clients who are bed-bound or have limited mobility, drivers may enter to help put the meals in the fridge.

Amidon, who had careers in broadcasting and information technology, saw her world upended after a serious accident forced her to learn how to walk and talk again. She still faces ambulatory challenges and has intermittent seizures.

A few years ago, when she suffered a debilitating seizure that left her sprawled on the floor, unable to get up, it was her Meals on Wheels delivery person, who had a key to her apartment, who found her and called 911.

“The doctors said that intervention probably rescued me from a cognitive decline from that seizure,” she said.

With only $40 a month left from her Social Security Disability Insurance check after rent and food, she’d often just drink water to fill herself up instead of eating before she reached out to Meals on Wheels.

She was initially embarrassed to contact the group.

“To require assistance after a lifetime as a working professional, I was ashamed for anyone to see my current poverty,” she said. “But I was overwhelmed at the warmth of the staff; they were very caring.

“For someone who is disabled, isolated and on a fixed budget, it can change your life,” Amidon said. “It did change my life.”

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @csaid

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