Meals on Wheels keeps rolling along

RJ Kinzler, coordinator of Clay County Meals on Wheels for the past 21 years, says the pandemic forced some changes but the program has kept on rolling. (Photo/Nancy Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

RJ Kinzler has been at the helm of Clay County’s Meals on Wheels for 21 years – decades of delivering hot, fresh meals to elderly and homebound seniors throughout Moorhead and around satellite operations in Dilworth, Glyndon and Hawley. But there’s never been a time quite like the past 14 months.

Five days a week, hundreds of older residents are waiting for that knock on the door that means a volunteer has brought their midday meal. Some 200 individuals and couples count on those volunteers for their daily nutrition – a menu cooked that morning by Concordia College Dining Services, packaged in the kitchen, then distributed among that day’s volunteer crew to deliver along 18 routes, including two on the north side of Moorhead and five to southside neighborhoods.

RJ has been shepherding the operation since she and husband Mike arrived here in the wake of the epic flood of 1997, fresh from Bear Valley Bible Institute of Denver and ready to start their mission. They began volunteering with community groups to build relationships in their new community. RJ stepped up for Meals on Wheels, at the time handled out of the Dilworth Community Center with food service from Detroit Lakes.

“I came in one morning to find that there had been a mutiny of sorts, and all the staff had quit,” she remembers. “They asked me, ‘Can you help?’ I’m kind of a ‘yes’ girl – and I’ve been here ever since.”

Shortly after, the regional nonprofit Nutrition Services Inc. won the bid for Region 4, including not only Clay but Becker, Wilkin, Ottertail, Traverse, Grant, Douglas, Stevens and Pope counties. Eighteen years ago, the food contract for cooking up both home-delivered meals and those served in congregate settings – including the Hjemkomst Center and Parkview Terrace – went to the Concordia commercial kitchen.

The wheels have been running smoothly ever since, the coordinator says. She handles the daily delivery roster and all business functions and supervises the packaging and pickup in the Knutson Center at Concordia. The dining service develops the menus, including their wildly popular barbecued ribs, beef stroganoff, pork tenderloin and – a new favorite – gjetost chicken. “We have a lot of Norwegians,” she explains.

The dietitian-directed menus aim to provide one-third of the recommended daily allowance of nutrients. For some recipients, though, it’s more than that fraction of their daily intake. Each meal includes six ounces of protein, half a cup each of a starch and vegetable or fruit, a half pint of milk and a dessert. “We say that’s a cookie, but, being Concordia, our desserts are often much fancier, like a big piece of rhubarb pie,” she confides.

About 200 deliveries are made each day; some seniors receive them five days a week, others two or three times or even just one. Frozen meals are provided on Thursday or Friday to tide them over the weekend.

But if anything could make those wheels fall off, it would be lack of volunteers. “Our volunteers are just fantastic. They’re sent straight from God,” she emphasizes. Only one problem: “We need more.”

Only about half of the 40 on her current roster are what she considers active, picking up a route at least once every week; the rest may handle a route once a month or so. The difference must be made up by Heartland Industries, which employs people with disabilities. “It’s great to have them. They’re flexible, so that when someone calls in sick or can’t make it for some reason, they help cover that route,” RJ says.

Yet community volunteers are at the heart of the program. It does not charge for meals, whose net cost is about $4. Donations are more than welcome, RJ says, but never required; a majority do give, but many on fixed incomes cannot. “If I can’t get enough volunteers, we’d be forced to pay for all of our deliveries and would have to charge,” she says. “There are a lot of people who just don’t have the money for that.”

She draws most of her volunteers from Clay County churches and community groups like the Lions and Kiwanis.

During the past 14 months of pandemic restrictions, Meals on Wheels staff and volunteers – considered essential workers – have carried on without missing a beat. The masked visitors may knock on the door and hand over the meal. If the recipient prefers more distance, they can leave it on the doorstep.

“We just kept going,” RJ reports. At first, when the community was advised to stay home and stay safe, she says they had plenty of volunteers. But as restrictions have eased and many have gone back to work, that stream was abruptly throttled. Now, with summer travel and lake season just around the corner, the need has become acute.

“I ask, ‘Can you give me one hour one time a week?’ That’s not much, but it means a lot,” she points out. “It’s a great way to help our neighbors who are trying to stay in their own homes.”

To volunteer with Meals on Wheels, call RJ Kinzler at (218) 287-0434.

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