Feeding the hungry can nourish the soul

Meals On Wheels Atlanta offers volunteers opportunities for service, connection

Feeding the hungry is an undertaking to which those involved with Meals On Wheels Atlanta devote significant time and energy. The organization sees an army of volunteers making sure food gets to those who often depend on it as a main source of nourishment.

“Sometimes, that meal that we provide for them might be the only nutritious meal that they get for the day. That’s the challenge with hungry, not only in Atlanta but in America,” said MOWA CEO Charlene Crusoe-Ingram.

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Year-round opportunities

Volunteer participation runs at a steady clip throughout the year with a ramping up of activity around the holidays.

“Right now, we have about 2,000 volunteers annually who work with us, and sometimes, it’s seasonal during the holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas. With kids home from school, that number might go up,” Crusoe-Ingram said.

Preprepared meals are still the organization’s mainstay, and volunteers play a big role in producing them.

“These meals are prepared in our kitchen,” Crusoe-Ingram said. “They are cooked and packaged. They’re delivered frozen.”

Some MOWA meal recipients, many of whom are older adults, prefer to cook at home.

“There are some seniors who are still able to prepare or cook their meals, so we have a pantry — like grocery store items,” Crusoe-Ingram said.

Volunteers work to package this shelf-stable food — filling grocery bags, labeling and dating cans and making breakfast bags with snack-type items. The organization is also finishing a new commercial kitchen, and there are plans to invite youth to collaborate with chefs and learn to cook nutritious foods.

“It’s a major effort sponsored by the community,” Crusoe-Ingram said, “And we will leverage that demo kitchen for teaching, but we will also use it to bring in revenue so that we can feed more seniors.”

Credit: contributed by Meals On Wheels Atlanta

Credit: contributed by Meals On Wheels Atlanta

‘We’ve got to do something’

George Calfo, 59, volunteers weekly with MOWA, helping ready meals for distribution.

“I’m basically the freezer guy,” he said. “I take the meals out of the freezer because they’ve been prepared during the week, and we get them organized for people that are doing meal delivery. They can just pull up, we put it in their car and off they go.”

Calfo began serving with MOWA in April of 2020 after seeing news coverage of people joining long lines “trying to get food and figure out how they were going to eat.”

Calfo is part of a men’s group at Buckhead Church, and the members decided to try to help with the food insecurity they were seeing.

“We were looking at this heartbreak, and we said, ‘We’ve got to do something,’” he said. “It was hard not to see oneself in that line, but for circumstances, and in many cases, just luck. I just happened to be in a job that was not impacted by COVID.’”

Calfo initially wanted to be involved in MOWA food delivery. But after the first couple of times he participated, the delivery slots filled up and he ended up in his current kitchen position.

As his two-year anniversary approaches, Calfo, who spends his workdays as an investment banker, has settled into his weekend role providing for Atlanta’s hungry.

“My kids refer to it as my Saturday job,” he said. “It’s no big deal, but it’s stuff that has to get done.”

Credit: contributed by George Calfo

Credit: contributed by George Calfo

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Meaningful relationships

Deb Vander Ploeg, 52, is a MOWA delivery driver. She and her husband, Lynn Caroll, began with three routes throughout the week in 2014. As the organization gained more drivers, the couple moved to one route on Saturdays in the Grove Park area, which, from pickup to the last dropoff, typically takes about an hour.

The couple worked nearly every Saturday this past year, logging close to 140 hours. For Vander Ploeg, connection with her recipients — especially the older adults — is meaningful.

“You know, there’s a lot of pride that they have in not wanting to ask for help,” she said. “So, I think being able to develop that relationship by delivering to the same people week in and week out — we’ve really been able to build those relationships.”

Credit: contributed by Deb Vander Ploeg

Credit: contributed by Deb Vander Ploeg

The service that MOWA provides can sometimes be a significant factor for older adults who want to continue living independently.

“It means a lot for those seniors to be able to stay in their homes that they’ve been in for a long time and not have to be forced into a home that isn’t familiar to them just because they don’t have the ability to necessarily get out and go to the grocery store,” Vander Ploeg said. “So, having us be able to bring food to them is one more piece of the puzzle.”

For Vander Ploeg, who left full-time work in healthcare technology a few years ago, volunteering with MOWA has afforded the opportunity to get out and see more of Atlanta as she did not grow up here.

“It was really kind of a cool way to also get to learn more about the city,” she said. “I think that’s one of the great things that Meals on Wheels offers is the ability to learn about the city and other neighborhoods.”

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