By Jim Oswald, director of marketing and communications, Meals on Wheels San Francisco

A meals on wheels client sits smiling in front of his piano
Photo credit: Meals on Wheels San Francisco – Kurt, a Meals on Wheels client who is mostly blind, smiles in front of his piano, which he still plays

Last year, Meals on Wheels San Francisco provided meals to more than 5,200 homebound seniors in the City. We experienced a surge in demand due to COVID-19 that we could not have expected. As many seniors with underlying medical conditions became housebound and fearful to go out for groceries due to concerns of contracting coronavirus, we were inundated with new requests for our services. In all, we saw nearly triple the number of people request home-delivered meals from us – the largest influx of need in one year that we’ve experienced in our 50-year history.

We were very fortunate to find new partners from the corporate sector to help us meet that growing need. One in particular truly understands our mission of helping older adults take care of their health through nutritious meals that enable them live independently in their homes: the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation.

We met with Delta Dental at the end of 2019 to figure out how we could collaborate on a program to help improve the oral health of our clients. Many of the individuals we serve require special diets of softer foods due to mouth pain or tooth loss. We thought there could be good opportunities to provide education or other resources to our clients to help them be more proactive about their taking care of their teeth and gums – or dentures and gums. Then COVID-19 hit, and everything was put on hold.

Even during the pandemic, shelter-in-place and the various surges and spikes in coronavirus cases, Delta Dental didn’t put its support on hold. In the early days of the pandemic, they provided us with $150,000 in unrestricted grants to help us with our operations. And they came back to us at the end of 2020 with $500,000. We’re using that to build something that helps our clients improve their oral health together.

Oral health and overall health are closely connected. And poor nutrition and food insecurity have a direct link to both. In fact, food insecurity increases the risk of dental caries, which is the condition that causes tooth decay. As we age, poor oral health is also linked to numerous chronic diseases, certain types of cancer and even Alzheimer’s.

Our clients at Meals on Wheels experience a variety of health challenges, ranging from food insecurity, limited physical mobility and living at or below the federal poverty level. Many seniors have to make hard choices between paying the rent or purchasing food. Unfortunately, that means their oral health has traditionally been pretty low on the priority list. Combine that with being homebound and unable to regularly see a dentist, and you’ve got a population that is in dire need of help. We are still figuring out what that help will look like, but so far Delta Dental has shown us they are all in – and not just with funding.

Delta Dental employees created more than 1,000 “Thinking of You” cards for our clients to be included with their meals as part of our March for Meals campaign this month. March for Meals is our national campaign that celebrates the 1965 Older Americans Act, which was amended in 1972 to include funding for senior nutrition programs like ours. Delta Dental also provided more than 4,000 dental kits with a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and a tip sheet to help our clients improve their oral care at home. We’re hoping to engage more Delta Dental employees in other volunteer opportunities as our partnership grows and deepens.

We’re excited to partner with Delta Dental to improve the health of the older adults we serve every day, and together, help keep seniors smiling.