Editorial: From Meals on Wheels, food and grace
By Express-News Editorial Board
This is a story about hunger and isolation, and those who heroically try to fill stomachs and hearts. Like many such stories in San Antonio during this pandemic, it begins with a vehicle line on a recent sun-drenched morning.
It wasn’t anything startling. There were no jarring aerial photos to encapsulate food insecurity in San Antonio, the nation’s poorest big city. Just two lines of vehicles curling around the parking lot at Grace Place Alzheimer’s Center, on the Northwest Side, slowly being loaded with meals.
The food wasn’t for the drivers, but for the elderly across Bexar County who are in need of sustenance. This wasn’t a San Antonio Food Bank distribution, but the volunteer line for Meals on Wheels.
We had come to Grace Place to witness another side of the hunger and food insecurity so pervasive in our community. An often unseen side because the recipients of these meals are not at Food Bank distributions. They are the elderly who are either unable or afraid to go to the grocery store. They are at home, and they are often alone until, that is, Meals on Wheels San Antonio knocks on the door.
Like everyone else, Meals on Wheels has had to adjust and stretch resources during this pandemic. The nonprofit has been serving about 1,000 more people since March 14, about the time COVID-19 began to spread across San Antonio and Bexar County. Meals are served cold now, not hot. The nonprofit serves about 5,000 seniors in Bexar County a year and has delivered about 50,000 extra meals since the middle of March.
What used to be a sprawling operation with pickup points across Bexar County has been centralized at Grace Place, which has put its Alzheimer’s work on hold during this pandemic. Inside Grace Place, boxes of meals were piled high. Volunteers loaded food bags and brought them to idling vehicles. Some of those vehicles were being driven by Grace Place employees, who have been thrust into new roles in these challenging times.
Not all, though. At the front of the line was Randy Bergman, a retired doctor and volunteer who began delivering meals just before the pandemic and has kept driving. A few vehicles back were Chris and Pat Maguire, who have been volunteering for Meals on Wheels for years.
And there was Vinsen Faris, CEO of Meals on Wheels, wearing a mask as he explained how the meals are still being served, but the crucial social interactions that Meals on Wheels also delivers have been muffled and muted by fear in this pandemic.
The grace of Meals on Wheels begins with nutrition, of course, but it’s also a chance for volunteers to step through the front door, give a welcome hug, assess a client’s living situation and lend a helping hand. Friendships are made here.
“Early on,” Faris told us, “people would open the door and say, ‘Thank you so much.’ Now, the longer we get into it, the fear factor has grown unbelievable. It’s not uncommon for us to see hands come around the door.”
One member of this Editorial Board has volunteered for Meals on Wheels — long ago and in a different city — so we can attest to the social grace the nonprofit delivers. We followed Faris and Ariana Barbour, marketing director for Meals on Wheels San Antonio, as they made deliveries on the Northeast Side. With each delivery, we were struck how the pandemic has created such need while also creating so much distance.
The meals were welcome at each home, but no one lingered to chat. Not even from 6 feet away. After one quick exchange with a grateful but nervous man, Faris looked crestfallen.
“This just isn’t normal,” he said. “It’s awful. These guys want to share.”
Navigating this pandemic — and recovering from it — will require the essentials of food, utilities, internet access and blood donations, but also the conviction to build and maintain lasting connections with our neighbors, and a willingness to look out for those who, even in the best of times, are often unseen.
Like Meals on Wheels, each of us can deliver such grace in good times and unprecedented ones.