The Delta Dental Community Care Foundation has worked to make immediate funding available to California-based nonprofits working directly to help vulnerable populations in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Meals on Wheels San Francisco received an unrestricted grant from the Foundation to help meet increased demand amid the challenges of this new reality. We spoke with Jim Oswald, director of marketing and communications for Meals on Wheels San Francisco, to learn a little more about how they’re adapting.

“There is simply no roadmap for what we’re living through right now. We have prepared for years to respond to earthquakes, and we have command structures to get us through. These have served us well during this crisis. But – the food delivery system in an earthquake looks quite different than in a crisis where we’re all locked down at home. It’s vastly more challenging because of the duration and the sheer volume of unknowns with this pandemic.” – Ashley McCumber, CEO and Executive Director, Meals on Wheels San Francisco.

How has the current COVID-19 crisis affected your operations and clients?

For 50 years, Meals on Wheels San Francisco (MOWSF) has been a safety net for thousands of the most vulnerable members of our community: homebound seniors who cannot access nutritious meals due to health issues, financial situations or both. Our clients face these struggles in the best of times, and COVID-19 has certainly turned our operation on its head.

Since the shelter-in-place order went into effect in San Francisco, we’ve seen an increase in the number of seniors requesting home-delivered meals of about 60 to 100 percent. Many of our clients are already isolated, and about 70 percent live alone. The shelter-in-place order and advice for seniors to stay indoors as much as possible is even more isolating and leaves them with little-to-no options for nutritious meals – we’re it!

Between March and May 16, we were able to get nearly 600 seniors off the waitlist and immediately on to Meals on Wheels – a record. Additionally, we’ve gone from producing 8,000 to 10,000 meals a day and are serving approximately 3,600 older adults and adults with disabilities each day – a number we expect to continue to grow.

What changes have you had to make as a result of the pandemic and mandatory social distancing?

Our first priority was the safety and health of our staff and senior clients. By nature of our work, we already maintain high standards of cleaning and safety protocols. During COVID-19 we’ve also installed hand sanitizing stations throughout our building, required staff to wear masks and implemented stringent social distancing in the workspace. In addition, we’ve asked those at higher risk for contracting coronavirus to work from home.

Social distancing is so important. While some of our staff can work remotely, many – such as our crews working in the kitchen and drivers – cannot. To help keep them safe and mitigate risks, we erected a semi-permanent tent outside to add more space to our footprint, allowing staff who are on the frontlines to be able to social distance while on breaks. We’ve also rented a separate space in order to split our kitchen between two buildings, giving staff even more space to work.

We’ve instituted no-contact deliveries for the safety of our clients who, in many cases, already struggle with significant health challenges and may be fearful of being in contact with someone who could be an asymptomatic carrier.

We’ve hired and trained more staff to replace those who were ill or unable to work due to illness or other factors (about 40 percent of our workers). We were pleased with the number of people who contacted us to volunteer to help with key jobs such as packing for our Home-Delivered Groceries programs on Wednesdays and assisting our trained drivers with meal deliveries. We now have an on-call list of about 1,000 eager people we can call upon.

The Delta Dental Community Care Foundation grant has helped us immensely because we’ve incurred significant COVID-19 related expenses – hiring staff, implementing additional safety and health measures (acquiring extra supplies such as gloves, masks, disinfectant and hand sanitizer supplies) and producing approximately 1,000 extra meals a day to meet the need. The donation has also helped us move neary 500 seniors in need of meals off the city-wide waitlist in a record amount of time.

What advice do you have for other nonprofits struggling with the same challenges?

First, remember that we will make it through this! And your most important asset is your people – the folks who are there day in and day out to help you achieve your mission of serving the community. Take care of your staff and volunteers so they can take care of the people who depend on your services.

It’s also important – early on – to implement an emergency response plan and develop a small team to carry out the plan. We implemented an Incident Action Plan and put together an emergency response team in early March, which has helped us identify challenges, provide a running log of things that need to be addressed, and plan for the future.

What do you most urgently need in terms of support, and how can people help?

Not knowing what life will look like after “flattening of the curve” occurs is one of the hardest things for our organization in terms of workforce planning and day-to-day operations. As of now, we believe we’ll be continuing our work in emergency response mode until July or possibly August. Our biggest needs include securing donations to support our operations and ensuring we have safety supplies. We moved our biggest fundraiser, the Star Chefs & Vintners Gala, normally held in May to September 13. This event is responsible for about $3 million of our budget for the fiscal year, so we need to make up the difference before the end of June. For those who would like to support us with a financial contribution, they can do so at www.mowsf.org/coronavirus or www.mowsf.org/donate.