When Kansas City cab driver Stacy Kelley taps on the window of the apartment, Nattie Birch shuffles over and peeks through the curtains.
Birch is 93 years old, frail and shut in, so she’s happy to have a visitor. Especially Kelley, who comes five days a week and brings her a hot meal, a smile and conversation.
Kelley has even been known to save a life with a visit to a lonely Kansas City senior who had fallen or slipped into a diabetic coma.
But that all ends Oct. 1, when most of the 2,500 elderly Kansas City shut-ins will no longer get a hot meal delivered to their doors through the area’s decades-old meal delivery program.
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Instead, those daily hot meals — each one specially prepared through a community volunteer effort — are being replaced with a box of frozen food that will be delivered once a week.
And Kelley, who drives for Checker KC cab company and most days delivers hot meals to 20 to 25 seniors, will no longer get to stop by and spend a moment with Birch.
“It really hurts,” Kelley said. “These elderly people are my heart. Some of them don’t have anybody checking in on them. I see them every day. And it’s like when they see me they are just happy. It’s hard to know I won’t get to see them anymore.”
Kelley has been delivering hot meals to seniors for 12 years.
“I have walked in on some of them in the middle of a diabetic coma. I’ve walked in on some who had fallen and couldn’t get up. If I hadn’t come by I don’t know when anyone would have found them,” Kelley said.
The Mid-America Regional Council, which administers the meal delivery program in a five-county Kansas City area, has contracted with the GA Food and Valley Food companies to prepare and deliver the frozen meals each week to seniors.
Some other cities across the country including Philadelphia and boroughs of New York and other parts of Missouri went to frozen meal delivery to seniors several years ago.
The Kansas Meals on Wheels program will maintain it’s daily hot meal deliveries, which it has provided for more than two decades.
In the Kansas City area, MARC piloted its new program last fall by replacing the daily hot meal with frozen food for about 450 Medicare shut-ins.
In October MARC is making a complete transition to frozen food for most of the elderly — 60 and older — who rely on having the daily delivery.
Eliminating hot meals will cut $350,000 from the $2.5 million-a-year program, said James Stowe, director of aging and adult services at MARC. The savings will go directly back into the program and will allow MARC to add more seniors.
“We will be able to expand our services,” Stowe said. “We will eliminate our wait list.”
MARC’s program is modeled after Meals on Wheels, which has been delivering food to the nation’s elderly since the 1950s. Last year it served 2.4 million people.
The delivery program began on the premise that volunteers could deliver a nutritious hot meal to elderly shut-ins Monday through Friday.
The meal would be more than just a hot lunch. The volunteers would provide daily contact and check up on the older adults who are alone during the day.
In the Kansas City area — Jackson, Cass, Clay Platte and Ray counties — the MARC program is funded in part with federal, state and local dollars.
Around the country, programs like MARC’s are having to watch their spending under the Trump administration, which in its 2018 budget proposes cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services, a funding source for some meal delivery programs.
Stowe says, however, that changes at MARC are more about growing the program than saving money.
Sharon Sanders and volunteers at St. Therese Little Flower Catholic Church in Kansas City said they still believe money plays some role in the frozen food decision.
“People just don’t understand that for some of these seniors this is the only meal of the day they get. The only time they get any human contact,” said Sanders, who heads up the meal delivery program at the church. “I just want people to know that change is coming and it is going to hurt seniors.”
Sanders said she worries about some seniors who have family members living with them.
“What happens if their meals gets eaten by someone? At least with a hot meal they could sit down and eat it right away.”
Mary, who is in her nineties and lives alone, asked that her full name not be used for safety reasons. The retired art teacher, says that because she is living with diabetes and other ailments, most days she needs to eat as soon as her meal is delivered. Often, she said, she’s too weak in the mornings to cook.
The frozen meals will come stacked five in a box. Shut-ins will have to pop a frozen meal into the microwave or the conventional oven. Stowe said MARC hasn’t completely figured out clients who don’t have a way to warm the frozen meal will get their food.
As for flavor, Sanders said, she hasn’t tasted the frozen meals and can only vouch for the tasty food that’s delivered from her St. Therese kitchen
By 10 a.m. most days the community center at St. Therese is filled with the smells of a hot meal sitting on the kitchen’s steam line.
Church volunteers, some from St. Therese, others from across town at St. Peter’s, Christ The King or St. Elizabeth’s, stand elbow to elbow behind the food and fill divided plates with scoops of broccoli, chicken patties, potatoes and rolls. Clients also get a bag containing milk, fruit and salad. The meal is different each day.
Sanders operates the machine that seals plastic wrap over each plate.
“This is a presentation,” said Bob Fitzgerald, who is quick to admit he might never have met Sanders had he not began volunteering on the steam line at St. Therese.
The effort to feed elderly shut-ins has brought together men and women from different communities, who like Fitzgerald and Sanders probably never would have gotten to know each other.
“This is a community effort here,” Fitzgerald said. “And there is a certain amount of dignity that this program provides for our elderly shut ins. And I just don’t think you can replicate that with a frozen meal.”
Fitzgerald said the meal delivery program holds special meaning for him because 20 years ago his mother had meals delivered to her.
“It was a very important part of her day,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s about the nutritional value really it’s the daily contact. That is invaluable.”
Referencing a Mahatma Ghandi quote, Fitzgerald said. “ The greatness of our country will judged in how we treat our elderly.”