In the best of times, Meals on Wheels faces the herculean task of delivering 200 million meals annually to 2.4 million hungry and isolated older Americans. But this is the time of the coronavirus.

In the best of times, Meals on Wheels faces the herculean task of delivering 200 million meals annually to 2.4 million hungry and isolated older Americans.

But this is the time of the coronavirus.

I wanted to get inside Meals on Wheels to see how it would gear up its services during the pandemic. After all, 79% of its clients are 75 or older. There would be more demand now that many more seniors – including those who probably never imagined they’d be stuck inside – are advised it is safest to remain housebound.

What I saw was that this agency, a mainstay in the lives of so many, was swamped. Ideas of what was possible diminished by the hour, and it’s had to improvise to complete its mission.

Adapting to the pandemic

When I reached out to its press office March 12, I was optimistic I’d be able to see its operation, meet its director and volunteers and maybe even talk to a client or two. While the West Coast was hunkering down, life was still fairly normal on the East Coast and near its national headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. It would be ideal to go on a delivery. That was probably too much to ask.

By the next afternoon, a publicist from the headquarters told me, “In an effort to minimize risk, they’re no longer allowing visitors or inviting them into facilities.”

But this, she said, could “illustrate how cautious they’re being and how quickly the situation is escalating.”

That’s OK, I thought.

Not an hour later, another email from a program director in nearby Alexandria, Virginia: “Things are very dynamic. As a precaution, we are no longer having visitors go along on deliveries.”

He invited me to a meal pickup spot to talk with volunteers, so long as there was “no shaking hands, of course.”

Maybe we could even get a look at meal prep. Monday, four days later, we’d go with a photographer to Jeffery’s Catering, a full-service catering company tucked away in one of Alexandria’s industrial sections.

The novel coronavirus marched on.

'How do we continue to be their lifeline?'

About five minutes after I pulled up Monday, I got a text saying all in-person meetings were canceled. Instead of seeing the director, I drove home to interview him by phone. I could talk to a volunteer by phone, too, but not a client.

What I couldn’t see, but what I learned, was that Meals on Wheels was desperately – though creatively – struggling to honor its mission. This is an organization that depends on older volunteers, roughly two-thirds of whom are 65 and up. What if they prefer to stay home for their safety? Or worse, what if they have been struck by this nasty virus, which can be deadly for older folks?

The need was overwhelming. Most volunteers were taking shelter. All social norms were upended as people practiced social distancing and worked from home.

By Thursday, Vinsen Faris, CEO of Meals on Wheels in San Antonio, was worried. The chapter serves 3,600 meals daily and had lost dozens of corporate volunteers as companies shut down.

Since there were fewer volunteers, staff members would make home deliveries. Faris suspected they’d need to move on to shelf-stable food, such as canned fruit and beans and boxed pasta.

He was haunted by the idea that they might not be able to deliver at all.

"I’m up at night wondering: How do we continue to be their lifeline?” Faris said.

Bracing for the worst, the San Antonio group has been providing five extra meals for clients to keep in their refrigerators. It will distribute emergency meal boxes with four days’ worth of food that can be easily opened and requires little preparation.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, executive director Alan Winstead said the group would soon scrap fresh, hot meals. It will do more with less: delivering frozen and shelf-stable food. He’d lost 75% of his volunteers. "I have been with Meals on Wheels for seven years, and this experience – and the need to adapt – is unprecedented,” said Ellie Hollander, CEO of Meals on Wheels America.

“We will need to provide even more meals than we previously had to,” she said, because requests nationally for new aid are mounting.

Winstead's program is informing folks calling for help right now that it can’t take on new applicants until after April 15.

Meal delivery is more complicated, too. Volunteers must wash hands or use sanitizer between stops. They will have their temperature taken.

They will place the bag of food on the doorknob, knock on the door, then step back at least 6 feet. Some clients who can’t walk – or who are blind – can’t navigate the trip to the front door. Others aren’t able to bend down to pick up the food. Volunteers must wait for the client to come to the door and retrieve the food before leaving.

Rule No. 1: No contact

The food is critical, but Meals on Wheels also provides a human connection that can be precious. Its volunteers offer a conversation. They check in on folks. They might be the first to know that someone’s struggles are getting the best of them. Staff will now reach out by phone to check in.

As Winstead in Raleigh puts it: “The social connection is equally important.”

The group’s need for financial assistance is dire. Its COVID-19 Response Fund has raised more than $5 million. The government committed $250 million in supplemental funding to feed the needy as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

With a boost from that, the organization will hire more drivers and reach out to ride-hailing companies to assist with delivery, said Hollander, the national CEO.

The real possibility of halting all home delivery has Winstead focused on getting as much food as possible to his clients in Raleigh.

"This is a food crisis. This is a community crisis. This crisis challenges every operating procedure we’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m scared.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit, editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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