More than 200 senior citizens in north St. Louis County could soon receive daily hot meals from the local Meals on Wheels program, thanks to a cafeteria planned for the Ferguson Community Center.
The Mid-East Area Agency on Aging has been delivering frozen meals to seniors for three years because it lacks a place to heat them.
That could change soon, now that the agency has submitted plans to remodel center’s cafeteria at 1050 Smith Avenue. It also plans to open a new senior center location there as soon as August.
“We’ll have to ease into it. We will continue to provide hot meals at the senior center, but we will have to continue the frozen meals until we can recruit the volunteers and make sure that we have enough funding,” said Mary Schaefer, the director of the Mid-East Area Agency on Aging.
The Meals on Wheels program switched to frozen meals about three years ago, when funds were tight and three other senior centers in the area closed. With the closest available kitchen tucked away in a subdivision on the northern edge of the county, coordinators faced a choice between cutting people from the program and delivering frozen meals.
On most days, drivers like Van Tyler, a local pastor, deliver weekly boxes with five frozen meals to as many as 40 seniors a day. Carefully packaged plates of meatloaf, orange pork, and tomato-chicken pasta are picked up in the kitchen of the Pope John Paul II Apartments and transported on refrigerated trucks to several zip codes in north St. Louis County.
Tyler doesn’t look at a map when he drives his route; he knows it by heart. For disabled clients, he’ll open boxes or cartons of milk so they don’t have to. He surprises one with a birthday card, made by student volunteers.
“Some of our recipients don’t have family that’s able to come and be with them, spend time with them and show they care about how they’re eating or how their personal lives are going,” Tyler said. “It’s a nice experience to be able to provide some of that.”
Tyler said the switch from hot to frozen wasn’t easy for the people he delivers to, and some seniors left the program.
Others prefer the convenience of meals they can put in the freezer to save for later.
“I would prefer for mine to stay frozen. You have the say-so to when you eat,” said Jennings resident Brenda McDale, 71. “You have to, let’s just say, whoop it up a little bit, put a little seasoning and maybe a pat of butter on it.”
Being able to get meals delivered helps her live independently, she said.
“I don’t ever have to worry about [Tyler] coming. He says he’s going to come on Monday between 9:30 and 10:30, he’s always on time,” McDale said.
Schaefer, the Agency on Aging director, said delivering hot meals is preferred because they allow employees to ensure that elderly clients are safe.
“For some folks, that is the only person they see on a daily basis. There are times we have found someone who has fallen and couldn’t get to the phone,” Schaefer said.
In the St. Louis region, getting a hot meal often depends on where you live. Some of the more rural communities like Sullivan, Missouri also receive frozen meals.
A hot meal costs between $7 and $8 to prepare and deliver, while the frozen ones are only about $3.75, Schaefer said. Local volunteers and financial contributions can make up the difference, like when the city of St. Peters added a box to check on utility bills if residents wanted to donate to Meals on Wheels. North St. Louis County hasn’t received that level of support.
When the new senior center opens in Ferguson, clients will be able to visit the center for hot meals right away, Schaefer said. Coordinating daily deliveries to phase out frozen meals will take additional funds and volunteer hours, but she’s hopeful it will become a reality.
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