Americans from coast to coast felt the impact when the first U.S. cases of COVID-19 emerged earlier this year. The viral threat changed the way people interacted, hurt scores of businesses and bank accounts, and interrupted daily routines. It also affected Meals on Wheels, a grassroots network of more than 5,000 community-based organizations that keeps millions of vulnerable seniors nourished.
“Before the pandemic, there was already a hidden epidemic across our country around social isolation and hunger,” says Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America, the network’s national leadership organization. And since the start of the pandemic the need for the organization’s services has skyrocketed: It’s now delivering 77% more meals, and pre-existing waitlists have grown by 25%.
Traditionally, Meals on Wheels programs offer seniors who can leave their homes a place to gather, eat a warm meal, and socialize in community centers across the country. And for homebound seniors, volunteers deliver meals to their homes—an important opportunity to step inside, have a friendly conversation, and ensure the client is safe. “It’s so much more than the meal,” Hollander says. “It’s really an opportunity to see what the power of human connection can do between two people.”
Serving their clients has clearly become more challenging for the organization during the pandemic: Minimizing health risks required the nonprofit to instantly change operations. Community centers switched to offering takeout service, and volunteers left meals on doorsteps instead of entering seniors’ homes, sacrificing important social interactions. And because three-quarters of Meals on Wheels volunteers are over 55, many paused their service due to health concerns. At the same time, supply chain disruptions made it difficult to access personal protective gear for volunteers and caused a spike in food prices.
Fortunately, many companies sprang into action, seeking ways to support the nation’s aging population and connecting with Meals on Wheels to offer help. Their generosity throughout the crisis has been what Hollander describes as a “silver lining.”
Fanatics, a global sportswear company, pivoted its business to produce masks and gowns for hospital workers and raised close to $60 million to benefit organizations fighting hunger. Hotel chain Hilton offered its call centers to check in with isolated seniors stuck at home. And The Home Depot Foundation, which funds home repairs for vulnerable seniors who served in the military, gave Meals on Wheels the green light to shift grant dollars to food and meal delivery.
At the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival, a panel event presented by Meals on Wheels America brought together company leaders to discuss how corporate giving has taken on new urgency this year. Grace Farraj, head of corporate social responsibility at Fanatics, told the audience the pandemic highlighted the fact that governments and nonprofits can’t respond to crises on their own. “The private sector has increasingly more responsibility and an important role to play,” she said. “There is an increasing expectation among stakeholders that we should be doing more, we should be doing good, and really being thoughtful and deliberate about … what your brand stands for.”
Sunny Reelhorn Parr, executive director of the Kroger Co. Zero Hunger–Zero Waste Foundation, said the pandemic reinforced its focus on ending hunger in the communities the grocery chain serves. To help address the issue—which becomes more pressing as the pandemic persists—the foundation this year doubled the amount of grants it can make. “So many corporations, Kroger included, are defining—and redefining—our purpose, so we can use our unique space and place in the world to help make a positive impact for people and planet,” Parr said.
As many Americans spent more time at home this year, digital connectivity became more important than ever. To help people stay connected, Comcast made 1.5 million public Wi-Fi hotspots available for anyone in need and offered eligible customers 60 days of free internet access. Dalila Wilson-Scott, executive vice president and chief diversity officer for Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation, said the pandemic revealed new possibilities for organizations to collaborate for the greater the good. “None of us are focused on an issue that’s isolated,” she said. “(Those who are) impacted by digital equity are likely to be suffering from food insecurity and housing insecurity. There is much more opportunity for funders, government, the private sector, and public sector to come together with much more intentionality than in the past.”
ANTICIPATING ONGOING NEED
In September, Meals on Wheels America launched its Don’t Stop Now campaign, an effort to rally corporate giving and ensure that combating senior hunger remains a priority as the pandemic continues. So far, more than 30 companies have joined the campaign, adding financial firepower, using their platforms to raise awareness, and inviting employees and customers to get involved. Coca-Cola, for example, held a volunteer week to support causes that address food insecurity. And employees at more than a dozen companies like Synchrony, Macy’s, and Danone North America are writing thousands of encouraging notes to seniors who receive meal deliveries.
“We do not see this need going away anytime soon,” Hollander says. “In fact, for the population that we serve through Meals on Wheels, I believe that the increase will continue unabated.”
While public life—sans distancing—will one day resume, there will still be vulnerable seniors stuck at home, in need of nutritious meals and a volunteer’s kind words. Hollander hopes that Don’t Stop Now inspires a long-lasting movement from corporations that recognizes this population and feels compelled to act. “When the rest of us go back to our routines, things are not going to change for millions of seniors,” she says. “We want to make sure that people don’t forget that there are seniors here that still need our help.”