Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, the need for senior meals through the Lutheran Social Services senior nutrition program has increased.

However, traditional fundraising activities like selling brats at Hugo’s during the summer and the Taste of Christmas dinner held at the American Legion in Park Rapids couldn’t take place. The pandemic also created some additional challenges for the older population.

“Some seniors can’t get out to get food because they’re sheltering in,” said Shaye Thompson, regional manager of the Lutheran Social Services senior nutrition program. “We’re also getting more client referrals since COVID. In our Nevis, Akeley and Park Rapids area we’re growing. Since COVID, seniors have been able to receive two meals per day, so they don’t have to go to the grocery store. We have a very active council in Hubbard County that helps support the senior nutrition program.”

Mary Dennis prepares meals at the Nevis Senior Center. She said they have been serving 75-100 meals per day on average since COVID hit, more than they did when congregate dining was open. From 12 to 25 meals are picked up curbside, and the rest are delivered to homes.

The senior nutrition program also includes a dining club that allows seniors to purchase meals at local restaurants at a reduced cost. Zappy’s in Akeley and the Great Northern in Park Rapids are two of the restaurants in the region that participate.

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“You buy tickets at the pharmacy in Hugo’s that gives seniors a discount on each meal,” Thompson said.

During the times indoor dining was prohibited, she said, many seniors relied on curbside pickup and delivery to meet their nutritional needs.

Donations help fill the gap

Thompson said donations are especially important this year to help fill in the money that usually comes in from fundraising.

“We’re always trying to get donations to help with the deficit that accrues,” she said. “The average person can only donate so much per meal. The cost of the labor and food per meal is close to $9, and the average donation is around $4. Some can afford to pay and pay more, and some can’t pay at all. The donations we get really help that bottom line.”

The program suggests a $5 donation, but no one will be turned away for an inability to pay.

A letter requesting donations that went out to Hubbard County residents in December said the program was facing a $35,000 deficit at that time.

Hoping to expand to rural areas

Bob Hansen is the chairperson of the Hubbard County LSS Meals Nutrition Council. He said many people don’t realize that meals are available to all seniors, not just low-income seniors.

“We anticipate that we will serve over 32,000 meals to the elderly population in Park Rapids, Nevis, Akeley and Lake George this year,” he said. “Many of the seniors we serve live on limited incomes and are at risk of developing severe nutritional deficiencies and losing their independence. The nourishing meals are crucial to help keep them healthy and allow them to live in their own homes.”

Hansen said the program is looking for volunteer drivers to deliver meals to rural areas of Hubbard county as well.

“That ends up being extra driving, but if we can find enough volunteers we could expand the program to serve more people,” he said.

Program is a safety net

Another benefit of the meal program is that it provides a daily contact for seniors, especially for those who receive Meals on Wheels.

“If a volunteer brings back a meal to the site and says no one came to the door, our site coordinator will check on that person, call their emergency contact,” Thompson said. “That is reassuring for family members who could be living out of state or out of town, to know mom or dad or grandma or grandpa have that contact every day.

“We are going to people’s loved ones every day when we deliver meals. That is giving seniors in our community some time of stimulation when they are in isolation. Some of them haven’t left home at all except for maybe doctor appointments. It’s really needed right now.”

Hansen said not being able to hold in-person events has also limited the opportunities to provide information about all that the program has to offer.

“We encourage any senior who is not in the program to try it out,” he said.

Call Thompson at the LSS office at 320-493-3214, the Nevis Senior Center at 218-652-2022 or the Park Rapids site coordinator at 218-237-2798 for information on signing up for meals.