Hundreds of pre-packaged meals for the Meals on Wheels program sit in the freezer at Aroostook Agency on Aging's Presque Isle headquarters in this Star-Herald file photo. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | Star-Herald

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HOULTON, Maine — One of the most pressing issues during the coronavirus pandemic is how to continue providing food services to the elderly, a demographic which is particularly at risk of infection.

Maine has the highest median age of any state, at 44.9 years old, as of 2018. In Aroostook County, that number is even higher, with a median age of 45.3. A total of 12.9 percent of Aroostook’s 65 and older population lives below the poverty level, putting it nearly on par with Somerset County for highest in the state, according to the U.S. Census for 2017.

Many senior citizens already rely on meal delivery programs if they are unable to leave their homes. But many others congregate at dining sites in the area to get their meals — centers where seniors gather in groups to sit and eat together.

But with that no longer an option for the time being, delivery services are expected to be the go-to option for all seniors who want meal access.

Dottie Sines, nutrition services director at the Aroostook Agency on Aging in Presque Isle — which provides such services to seniors in Aroostook — said they are fully prepared to meet any spike in demand that may come from seniors staying in their homes.

“We’re in pretty good shape,” said Sines. “I know everyone’s worried, but we need to slow down a little bit and really understand that all of us who are service providers in the state of Maine — the social services and the area agencies on aging — we’re all working together to help each other.”

The kitchens that provide meals for the agencies, such as the one in Madawaska, remain open to prepare meals. Aroostook’s food supplier, Birch Stream Farms in Bangor, also will continue to provide fresh food to the agency.

Though many parts of the agency, such as food delivery, are carried out by volunteers, who may not feel compelled to be outside during the crisis, Sines said that on the contrary the phone calls coming in asking to provide help have only grown.

Sines also said that many churches and organizations, such as the Good Shepherd Food Bank, have also pledged to assist in any way they can.

“It’s a unified effort. Aroostook and the whole state have come together,” she said.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, chairperson of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, wrote a letter on Monday, March 16, to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar requesting expanded access to Older Americans Act Nutrition Programs for senior citizens to provide relief for the many who are staying at home.

“At a time of heightened need for nutrition services, additional flexibilities are urgently needed to ensure that [Area Agencies on Aging] can continue to serve older Americans, and meet growing demands,” Collins wrote in the letter. “Specifically, as congregate meal sites close, it is critical that the nutritional needs of those seniors can continue to be met.”

Sines said that she has not heard of any new initiatives from HHS regarding the pandemic, but that agencies that provide meals to seniors have been assured they will continue to remain fully funded.

“We’re just trying to get the food out for right now, and worry about the funding later,” she said. “But we have a lot of confidence in our leaders.”