When Calvin Moore became president and CEO of Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa in 2014, there were less than 15 employees on staff to help orchestrate a meal delivery and wellness check program for Tulsa's elderly population.
Today, there are about 35 employees that up until six weeks ago relied on 2,300 volunteers to assist in delivery efforts.
When the COVID-19 pandemic reach Tulsa in May, everything changed for the nonprofit organization. The volunteer list is comprised of those considered a part of the vulnerable population, so they had to stop delivering as needs surged across the metro area.
As unemployment increased and people were asked to shelter in place, Meals on Wheels saw a need to assist more individuals beyond their normal operations, so they went to work and quickly expanded services to provide food for all ages in Tulsa and the communities surrounding the city.
That created a big workload for those 35.
"It's a ton of work and they've been doing yeoman's work," says Moore. "Every single person has just been so heroic. I can't be more proud of of their efforts and their attitudes towards coming in. They come in work on Saturdays, when they're not even asked to do that. They're in here prepping or doing early preparation on Sunday evenings for meal delivery. And everybody jumps in and volunteers and they know we have to get accomplished, and they do it willingly."
Moore participated in an April 29 phone interview to discuss how Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa has radically changed it's operations to meet the growing food needs across the area. His full interview can be heard on the May 6 episode of Tulsa Talks: A TulsaPeople Podcast.
You've been a real busy man. How has Meals on Wheels handled its response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Our general approach to the pandemic has been number one, concern and safety for all of our clients, all of our traditional clients, and all of our volunteers. And if you look at the average age of our volunteers, it's 69-70 years old. Many of our volunteers volunteer with Meals on Wheels almost as a second career, some volunteering 15-20, and even up to 30 years. So my goal initially and our goal as an organization was to say, we know that our volunteers are right in the middle of that vulnerable population and our seniors who serve represent vulnerable population. So we need to do whatever we can number one to keep them both safe and sound, but at the same time continue to deliver on our mission.
We do a lot of contingency planning around weather catastrophes, natural disasters, and so forth. We want to make sure that we can continue business operations throughout those unfortunate events because that's when our clientele needs us the most. That's when the community needs us to stand up the most.
When the pandemic erupted, we already knew that we had a very strong baseline for emergency operations, but we never imagined we would have to stand down our volunteer corps, which is substantial. Last year we used 2,300 volunteers to deliver on our mission of delivering nutritious meals, wellness and safety checks, which helps seniors to deal with the issues of isolation and depression and loneliness that living alone and at an advanced age can bring along.
One of the things we did was number one, repurpose that core 2,300 volunteers to say "You won't be going out making deliveries every single day, because that increases the number of opportunities for the virus to spread. We want you the volunteers to stay at home, but at the same time, we want you to repurpose your time and start making calls into the homes of clients that we are serving to make sure that you keep those wellness checks, those safety checks, and those socialization calls going."
That is so important, particularly in a time of social distancing and social isolation. You have to remember most of our clients were already socially isolated to begin with because many of them live alone at home and a lot of times a Meals on Wheels volunteer is the only person they will see in that given week. It helps volunteers as well to stay kind of socially connected, to stay on mission and to stay fulfilled as a human being knowing they're not just at home helpless, but they're still helping those people that they normally serve.
That's worked extremely well. We have about 400 volunteers now who are not making normal deliveries, but they are delivering on our mission of making those wellness checks from from their homes, and we get a report on all of those clients here in the central office. We use an online app called More Than A Meal. Basically, as they are making that phone call, they are denoting how that person is doing on their iPad or on their phone or on their handheld, what particular needs that person may have, whether or not that's a home repair, if there's an emergency, if there's a problem securing medication, if other things need to be sourced, like grocery shopping or doing the getting a yard cut. All of those things and those needs to go into that application and that gets uploaded to our central database.
So right here, we understand every day what the needs of our clients are and we go to work to meet those needs. And I think that's kind of an unsung and underreported aspect of what we do here at Meals on Wheels.
In addition to taking care of our senior clients, which is our bread and butter, we've also responded to the crisis by really stretching our mission, kind of expanding our scope a bit and responding to emerging needs in the community, in particular, helping those underserved communities around us, whether they be students, families, and so forth within our project service area who need additional food assistance. We have launched what we're calling our "Meals on Wheels Community Outreach Efforts." We're utilizing the churches throughout the communities and that's as far north as Owasso, as far south as Glenpool, east in Broken Arrow, Sand Springs and Sapulpa in the west. We just launched that service in Sapulpa a few months early because of the crisis and the needs that it created.
These new efforts for us represent just our attempt to step in and step beyond our traditional service platform to fill needs and fill gaps that were created by the COVID-19. We are delivering meals, bulk food items, to people in the Hispanic community. We started last week, serving Burmese congregations, who were really, really hard hit by the economic fallout from the shelter in place scenario, and then we'll be doing a lot more in North Tulsa starting this week.
We have essentially gone from serving about 2,000 unique clients, about 300,000 meals per year, to serving well over 5,000 clients, and we'll do probably a half a million meals or more this year when it's all said and done.
You just answered like 14 questions for me with me only asking one.
(laughs) I've been answering a lot of them lately.
A look at a Meals on Wheels food distribution site
Due to COVID-19, Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa changed their operations and expanded services to provide food to more people in need. On Friday, May 1, the organization hosted a weekly meal distribution at The Dream Center, 200 W 46th St N. More than 6,000 meals were loaded into cars with volunteers from Victory Church providing assistance to the organization.
What has it meant to you and the organization to broaden your outreach beyond senior citizens to now you're seeing all walks of life. That's a big change. To help facilitate those changes you've partnered with Tulsa Transit. How is that going?
We have learned so much during this. Crises like this always presents challenges, but I've always believed that in order to grow and expand an organization to reach its full potential, that we have to really focus on the opportunities, and we have to put our best people on the best opportunities. The crisis has really allowed us to do that. It's really opened our eyes to underserved communities, to needs that are just persistent in our communities, to a lot of inequities that are out there. We just felt like it was was incumbent upon us to get out there to learn more about our communities, to learn more about the great people of Tulsa, and the individuals who really are hard working and really make this economy tick and who are suffering.
One of the things I really learned was that there are so many people who have mixed immigration status in our communities. They're working, they are contributing to the tax base. They are the ones who were handling our vegetables, serving in our restaurants, cleaning our office buildings, and they are doing it diligently. But because they may have one family member who is undocumented or have a family with mixed immigration status, they do not benefit from the stimulus package or any government relief package, even if they have children who are American citizens, or might have a spouse who's an American citizen.
For me, it was just tragic. These are the folks who are least capable of having getting their needs met and in a downturn economy in a crisis, and who are least likely to get any kind of assistance to help them through this time and so our heart goes out to them. Our the donor community has been fantastic and wanting us to really expand our services to kind of meet some of these needs.
Zack Stoycoff, Dr. Jim Zahniser examine the mental health impacts of COVID-19, plus an interview with Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa CEO Calvin Moore
In addition to that, As we have repurposed our volunteer community and said, "We need you to be at home making those calls," we still have to get out there and deliver those meals even though we want to do it with a reduced number of drivers. Most of the drivers that we use now are on our paid campus driver program. That's something that we started about three years ago. We had one driver to do a campus route, which means that everybody that couldn't be picked up on a normal route with a volunteer would still get a baseline of service and will get their meals driven to them once a week along with their health and safety check. Well, we just put that on steroids.
Now we have about 10 drivers who are delivering to individuals once a week and then doing the community outreaches for us, but we still were falling a little bit short on the number of drivers and the number of routes that we can cover with that program, so we started talking and reaching out to the community and working with Hunger Free Oklahoma. Modus, which is volunteer transportation program that primarily focuses on teens, and then we were eventually led to the Tulsa transit, which basically, were so heroic, they came out and said, "You know what, we have transit drivers who aren't driving anyone now. We want to keep those drivers driving, we want to keep them paid. We want to keep them employed. We want to keep them enjoined in this effort to do something in the community.
We said, "Boy, do we have an opportunity for you. Here's where we think we can come together." It's a fantastic opportunity. Their Lift transit drivers, which of course are the smaller buses work very well. We can push our coolers into there. We have literally been able to cut about 20% off the time that it takes for us to make deliveries. So the efficiency of the operation is gone great. We can cover more routes because of their efforts, and, our normal drivers and volunteers who handle the meals don't have to focus on driving, they can focus on the next step. They can focus on making their particular notes in regards to the health and safety and welfare of each one of the clients. While they're focusing on that our Tulsa Lift drivers are getting them to their next stop in record time.
It's been an amazing partnership so far. I think it's been a shining example of how even in the time of crisis, and I hope we carry this lesson on beyond COVID-19, but the lesson that I've learned and that's been reinforced is that there are so many opportunities for the public and private sector to join resources and join together to deliver a better service to our community and do it more efficiently across the board.
You likely saw the pandemic coming, in a way, but I don't think anybody was fully prepared for what has happened. Now that it's been five, six weeks that we've been through this, looking back on it, what are your thoughts reflecting on where you've come from since March when all this really got going?
Early planning, early preparation makes a huge difference. And being willing. Here's the thing: I think for us, if we're a privately-funded organization. There are organizations like ours who relied mostly on public funding or Title III funding. I advocate for that. I serve on the national board. I'm in Washington DC quite a bit lobbying for additional monies for senior programs for support for the Title III of the Older Americans Act. I love the program. I think we ought to be spending double what we're spending in it because the needs are tremendous.
Most of the programs that we lobby for take those kinds of dollars. Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa doesn't benefit from those because we've historically been privately funded. There are some limitations to that, but there are also some opportunities that come along with that. One of the opportunities is that it allows us to really be flexible. We can literally make a call to our donors and say, "Hey, this does not necessarily fall within our traditional service package. But we'd like to do this. We think there's an emerging need in the community, we'd like to do these things to respond." I can tell you down to an organization from George Kaiser Family Foundation to (Charles and Lynn) Schusterman (Family Foundation), to Zarrow (Family Foundations), to the Helmrich Family Trust and Ruth Nelson, they've all been supportive, and said to me, "Calvin, get out there and meet the needs and we're going to stand behind you." And that's what they've done.
That allows us the flexibility to jump into the gap where, frankly, many nonprofits have just not been able to to stand up operations because some of them have been sidelined. Some of them have been restricted. But we've taken the stance that we're going to to stay strong. We're going to move into this new arena. There are a lot of unknowns, but we're prepared with been prepared for it, and now it's time to test the limits of the organization and see how much we can get done. And we just we just keep going. The partnerships have just been remarkable from Modus, to Tulsa transit, from all of our foundational partners, individuals who are sitting at home. I can tell you that being sheltered in place, makes you really feel vulnerable, but one of the ways that our donors and our supporters have really kind of taken their power back, if you will, is to say "We may not be able to get out and do certain things, but we can take action. We're going to donate, we're going to give, we're going to, we're going to volunteer via the phone, we are going to do something."
It has been remarkable to really see how strong this community is, how tight knit it is, and how really heroic it's been in in its response to COVID-19. I'm just really proud of the community and what they've done.
It's also opened my eyes to what we can do. I hope everyone takes away some of what I've taken away from the lessons learned, and that is we can do a lot more than we previously thought we could do, and we could do it efficiently and we can be a lot more effective. I think that's one of the lessons that COVID-19 has taught us, and I hope it changes us for the better moving forward. I hope we don't abandon these partnerships, but I hope we find ways that we can keep them going and in service to the community.
This interview has been edited and condensed.