Amy Leland, a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, packages food for delivery in the kitchen of the Durgin Center in Brewer in March. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — An Aroostook County nutrition program for senior citizens has doubled the number of meals it serves. But without more volunteers, some seniors who need meals could have to wait until someone steps up to deliver them.

The Aroostook Agency on Aging in Presque Isle coordinates Meals on Wheels from the St. John Valley through the southern part of The County. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the program supplied 4,500 meals per month to area seniors. The group now packs and delivers 9,000 meals each month.

Volunteers make the meals program possible statewide. While southern Maine has seen its steady volunteer base grow since the pandemic, Aroostook County’s helpers have diminished. As enrollment expands, County seniors in need of food could go on waiting lists.

High gasoline costs, winter driving issues and volunteers who are ready to retire from service are concerns on both ends of the state, representatives from the northern and southern Maine agencies on aging said.

“I believe we’re seeing two things,” said Kelley Fitzpatrick, manager of nutrition services at the Aroostook Agency on Aging. “One is that we feel gas prices are a deterrent right now. The other thing is, though our volunteers are awesome, they’re tired.”

Megan Walton, CEO of the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, said volunteers don’t always feel comfortable driving in the winter. Rising gas prices could create a burden as well. But as the need has grown, so has the number of people wanting to help in that area.

“We have continued to have strong support from our volunteer base in York and Cumberland counties,” Walton said. “We actually had dozens of volunteers come out when the pandemic started because they were concerned about their neighbors.”

The southern organization has also doubled its meal service, Walton said, and now provides 45,000 meals each month in its two counties.

At the Eastern Maine Agency on Aging in Brewer, increased fuel costs have cut volunteer numbers, said Nutrition Manager Christopher Street. Though Meals on Wheels is getting by, more volunteers are needed. The nutrition service has more than doubled since the pandemic, with 16,961 meals provided in June.

“Every single one of those meals served is thanks to volunteers that go to those individual houses and drop them off every week,” Street said. “We would probably have to cut the number of consumers in half without those volunteers.”

In Aroostook, 45 volunteers support Meals on Wheels. On Fridays a group packs about 1,000 meals to be frozen, while people prepare hot meals in the St. John Valley. Seniors in some areas receive hot meals Monday through Friday, while others receive a supply of frozen dinners every two weeks.

Communal dining centers in Madawaska, Fort Kent and Van Buren reopened May 11 after being shuttered for two years because of COVID-19. Presque Isle’s center will reopen at some point.

More people have signed up for the meal service since the pandemic began. Some may have been eligible before, but COVID restrictions and inflation have prompted more to seek help.

“It’s grown because of COVID. People have been isolating at home,” said Linda Lease, the agency’s Meals on Wheels volunteer coordinator. “More people means more work for our volunteers.”

Some volunteers are having to absorb longer routes to make sure those in need receive food. In Madawaska, one person delivers to 70 people each day.

That’s just what people do in the Valley and The County as a whole, Lease said — they treat each other like extended family and look out for one another.

But without more volunteer help, new applicants to the program may need to go on waiting lists until someone can deliver to them. The agency needs five to six volunteers in the Valley, 10 to 15 in central Aroostook and five in southern Aroostook.  

It’s all about helping neighbors, said volunteer driver Terry Sandusky of Mapleton.

“If you see somebody in a ditch, you help them get out of it. If you see people who need nutrition, you deliver it to them,” Sandusky said. “That’s the Aroostook County way.”

Sandusky has served with Meals on Wheels for about five years and said it’s rewarding to see people’s lives improve thanks to regular, nutritious food. He also has provided information about other resources, such as home heating help, to the people who receive meals.

Typical driver duties are straightforward, Sandusky said. People pick up their list of recipients, load the meals and complete a two- to three-hour delivery run. The agency will reimburse drivers for mileage.

One of the agency’s goals is to help people age well in their homes and in their communities, Fitzpatrick said. When they deliver meals, volunteers also can check on residents’ well-being. Most importantly, the food helps people stay in their own homes longer.

To join the volunteer effort, contact Sherry Beaulieu, manager of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and volunteer services for the Agency on Aging, at 207-764-3396.