An employee of Bangor Airport Food Service measures out meal portions for Meals on Wheels at the Bangor facility in 2017. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | Linda Coan O'Kresik

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The Eastern Area Agency on Aging has experienced a significant increase in demand for its Meals on Wheels program since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Maine.

Meals on Wheels volunteers delivered 10,897 meals to older residents of Penobscot, Piscataquis, Hancock and Washington counties in March compared to 8,192 in February — a 25 percent month-to-month increase.

March 2020’s total of delivered meals was 38 percent more than the 6,797 meals delivered in March 2019.

The trend continued in April, as the EAAA had received 211 new referrals for Meals on Wheels service in its four-county region with 107 from Greater Bangor, an area that spans from Newport to Alton.

“Usually that 107 is more than we get in a whole month [from all four counties],” said Tom Kenny, EAAA’s director of nutrition. “That’s a pretty big number. We’re also seeing a pretty good amount in Piscataquis County, which is our second-busiest county other than Penobscot.”

A change in eligibility requirements and expanded funding in the wake of the pandemic have led to the increased availability of the Meals on Wheels program.

“I think it’s important that people understand that it’s not an income-based program,” Kenny said. “You can have all the money in the world and still need help, and I think one of the great things about this program is that you can donate back to it if you have the means to do so.

“A lot of the folks we have in the program are lower income, but definitely not all of them.”

Meals on Wheels has typically provided five to seven frozen meals each week to residents around the four-county region who are age 60 or older, homebound and unable to cook for themselves.

The meals are prepared by the Bangor Airport Food Service.

“In some areas that are real rural, we’re delivering bi-weekly,” Kenny said. “It depends on how many volunteers we have and the logistics of getting things out, but if someone calls and tells us they’re in a hard spot we’ll definitely do what we can to help them.”

The threat of the coronavirus on older Americans — particularly those with serious underlying medical conditions — has resulted in Meals on Wheels eligibility being revised to simply any person age 60 or older who practices social distancing in order to lessen the chance of contracting COVID-19.

There’s a suggested donation of $5 for each meal, but it’s not required.

“Now the folks that are most at risk for the virus are able to get that assistance and don’t have to be out and about as often,” Kenny said.

The eligibility changes coincided with additional funding for the Meals on Wheels program appropriated through the federal laws — Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the Families First Act — that were signed into law in late March.

“I was super thankful to see that because if we didn’t receive that extra funding and saw this increased demand then we’d have a long waiting list,” Kenny said.

That additional funding not only allows the EAAA to meet current demand, but Meals on Wheels also is able to support more clients as the coronavirus threat lingers.

“[Demand] is still going up, and we actually have more room to add people to the program,” Kenny said. “It’s definitely been very busy, but we’re trying real hard to get the word out because we’re here to help people.”

The program is open not only to people interested in receiving meals, but also volunteers interested in helping to deliver meals.

“It has been a bit of a challenge, but I thought it would be more challenging than it has been,” said Kenny of volunteer recruitment efforts, which include support from the United Way of Eastern Maine.

“A lot of our volunteers are older adults themselves, but we do have some folks in that age bracket who have been helping out more and we’ve seen a great amount of support from the community, too. People that are out of work right now are reaching out and asking if they can help.”

For information on the Meals on Wheels program, call EAAA at 1-800-432-7812.

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...