In many households across San Francisco, Thanksgiving Day is structured around a warm meal and some obligatory family time.
But for the more than 3,000 homes served by Meals on Wheels daily, neither a meal nor a familiar visit are guaranteed.
“Two-thirds of those folks that we deliver meals to, they are alone. They are not living with family, they don’t have a spouse,” said Karl Robillard, a spokesperson for Meals on Wheels, a national organization with more than 5,000 local affiliate programs that deliver daily meals to elderly and disabled citizens who are homebound or unable to prepare their own.
“Aging is difficult, no matter who you are — but aging alone and in a city like San Francisco, that is so expensive and such a rat-race, is in some ways very painful,” Robillard said.
The San Francisco program is headquartered in the Bayview District and serves more than 6,000 hot and cold meals twice a day, seven days a week.
Next year, that number could be even higher.
With its kitchen already operating at capacity — and to avoid waitlisting — clients, the organization has launched a capital fundraising campaign to expand its kitchen services to another building in the Bayview.
Each day, the meals are delivered by 25 drivers to low-income elderly residents, senior communities, organizations serving senior and disabled residents and Single Room Occupancy hotels. More than 500 of the organization’s clients live in the latter.
This Thanksgiving, Meals on Wheels will also service homeless residents at The City’s navigation centers.
There is a “huge need” for the program on any given day, Robillard said, and Thanksgiving is no exception.
At the Meals on Wheels’ headquarters, preparations for the holiday are a week-long production.
“It’s a really, really big day,” said dietician Leah Walton, adding that 400 volunteers have signed up on Thanksgiving Day to distribute some 4,800 turkey dinners across 220 routes in lieu of the organization’s regular drivers, who will be enjoying paid holiday.
That doesn’t include the dozens more who worked to prep the meals days in advance.
“We have kids in schools making placemats for the clients,” Walton said. “We also give them a little gift to leave them with that day — usually it’s a plant.”
On Monday, about a dozen volunteers from Dogpatch-based biotech firm Prellis Biologics, which specializes in engineering human tissues and organs using 3D-printing technology, spent the morning pouring a creamy pumpkin puree filling into 3,100 pie crusts.
Though a first-time volunteer with Meals on Wheels, Prellis’ chief of operations, Sohiel Memarsadeghi, said he often volunteers with youth and grapples with The City’s disparities on a daily basis.
“You see the stark contrast between income brackets, ages, lifestyles,” he said. “And if there is anything you can do to help to sort of bring people closer and help even it out, then I think that would be awesome.”
In recent years, the organization has relied on partnerships with the tech sector to meet a growing demand. The mid-Market based tech firm Zendesk was the first to “adopt a building” in 2014, meaning its employees are committed to delivering meals to an SRO hotel in their neighborhood once a week.
Since then, 12 other companies have followed suit.
Robillard said the Meals on Wheels drivers’ daily grind is dubbed “The Amazing Race.”
“Every time we get these companies to come in, all that allows us to do is spend more time with more people, in more parts of The City,” he said.
The organization, along with other food delivery programs serving seniors, received $20 million in city funding following the announcement of federal budget cuts to such programs earlier this year.
Gladys Diamonon, director of nutrition at Meals on Wheels, has overseen the pie-filling for the last 15 years. When she started with the organization, she said it serviced just 600 clients.
Diamonon referenced one client, an elderly man, for whom she knows her work has made a difference.
“He usually asks for two servings of a Thanksgiving meal every year,” she said. “The volunteers stay and linger and talk [to him] for a little bit. I believe it’s the only meal he would have for that day. When he asks for two meals, we always give it to him.”
Along with pumpkin pie, the Thanksgiving meals come with a variety of traditional Thanksgiving dishes — turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, carrots and Brussels sprouts — that are tailored to client’s specific dietary needs.
“We have found that if we can get these meals in a timely way, it has an incredible reduction in such chronic issues as hypertension, even diabetes and heart disease,” said Robillard, adding that once clients are registered, Meals on Wheels strives get to them within 30 days, or within five days in emergencies.
“If you are a senior and struggling to make ends meet, 30 days is an eternity,” he said. “It can change your health status.”
Meals on Wheels employee Sam Pruitt delivers meals to clients at the Civic Center Residence in San Francisco's Tenderloin district Wednesday, November 15, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)