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San Mateo County looks for new partners for Meals on Wheels

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Chef Cindy Fuentes prepares food for Pacifica’s Meals on Wheels program. (Courtesy Ann Cooney)
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Changes are being cooked up to programs that deliver meals to the homes of Peninsula seniors.

Meals on Wheels can be a crucial lifeline for Peninsula seniors, but some clients receive different service, depending on what city they live in. That could soon change, however, as the county looks for new partners to serve such cities as its Medical Center phases out the county’s service.

But it remains unclear how seniors in some northern Peninsula cities will receive delivered meals once the service is eliminated from the Medical Center.

Nonprofit Meals on Wheels programs throughout the U.S. and overseas deliver free or subsidized meals to clients who are unable to prepare their own meals, and who are typically disabled or seniors or both.

There are different service levels because Meals on Wheels in San Mateo County is administered by a patchwork of different organizations.

In Pacifica and Half Moon Bay, for instance, Meals on Wheels programs — run by their respective cities — deliver hot meals to clients five days per week, and each visit from a volunteer driver is akin to an informal wellness check, as the drivers are trained to notice signs a client might need help.

But in some other Peninsula towns, some Meals on Wheels clients are served by the San Mateo County Medical Center, which delivers a week’s worth of frozen meals with each weekly drop-off.

Additionally, those deliveries are made by paid couriers, who are not trained to perform wellness checks.

That level of service is less than ideal, said Jim Lange, Pacifica’s senior director of client services, who noted Meals on Wheels drivers are often the first to realize a senior might need medical or social services intervention.

“We’re often there before the paramedics,” Lange said.

It can be hard, and even frightening, for some seniors to admit they need help, Lange said. And the positions of friendship and trust occupied by Meals on Wheels personnel can enable them to persuade seniors to accept help when family members and authorities have failed to convince them.

“Last week, a client was refusing help until Ann showed up,” Lange said, referring to program coordinator Ann Cooney.

The San Mateo County Medical Center became a Meals on Wheels provider to fill a service gap created when Catholic Charities discontinued its meal deliveries in the county several years ago.

And while the county hospital can’t offer the level of personalized service provided by Pacifica’s program, county Aging and Adult Services Director Lisa Mancini said she’s grateful for its years of service.

“I so appreciate the Medical Center’s partnership in helping us serve the central and north parts of our county,” Mancini said.

In March, the county announced the Medical Center’s Meals on Wheels program would soon be phased out as the county looks to contract with other organizations to serve the Medical Center’s former clients.

Mancini said the county expects to issue a request for proposals in the fall.

Some of the Medical Center’s clients have already transitioned to Peninsula Volunteers, a Menlo Park-based nonprofit that recently began delivering meals in Burlingame and Hillsborough, and will add Foster City, San Mateo, and Millbrae in May, June, and July, respectively.

Interim Executive Director Peter Olson said Peninsula Volunteers would respond to the county’s request for proposals, but the organization has no current plans to operate farther north than San Bruno.

That leaves Daly City, Colma, South San Francisco, and Brisbane in need of providers, and it is not clear which organizations might step into those roles.

Cooney suspects there are seniors in need who are not currently being served. The program coordinator noted Daly City and Pacifica each have roughly the same number of Meals on Wheels clients, yet Daly City has more than twice Pacifica’s population, and presumably a lot more seniors who would qualify for the program.

“There’s a gap between need and service delivery,” Cooney said. “So my question is, how can we work together to close that gap?”

Peninsula Volunteers is looking for additional volunteer drivers. To volunteer, visit www.penvol.org/volunteer.

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