Like me, you’ve probably heard of Meals on Wheels, but your knowledge of the organization ends there.
It’s not for lack of caring or empathy, but simply as President and CEO of Meals on Wheels in Boulder Francea Phillips says, “You don’t know about us until you need us.”
Serving the “Invisible” Residents of Boulder, Colorado
Since 1969, Meals and Wheels has provided more than 2 million ready-to-eat meals to the local area’s vulnerable populations.
But before I continue further, let’s dispel some of the most common misconceptions right now:
- As a nonprofit, Meals on Wheels in Boulder does not receive government funding, relying solely on donations.
- Though Meals on Wheels organizations exist in several cities across the nation, each one is independently managed.
- There are no income or age restrictions to participate in the Meals on Wheels program but it is a program based on need and want for clients who are unable to shop and prepare one hot meal a day.
The mission of Meals on Wheels is to “provide meals to Boulder residents who need and want our services, regardless of age or income.” For many, this is a client’s single tasty, hot nutritious meal that they might have all day. Meals are charged on a sliding fee schedule, and those charges are based on the cost to purchase and prepare the food. Those who are financially stable may pay as much as $6.50 for a delivered entrée, while those who need more help could pay as little as 50 cents, “We ensure that nobody goes hungry if they can’t afford it,” Howlett says.
For many of their customers however, it’s more than just the food. One could say that there’s ‘the human factor’ that one simply can’t replace. “Many of our clients will tell us,” Howlett begins, “‘You’re the only person I see…ever.’” That isolation is paramount in all communities, even well-educated ones like Boulder which boasts a highly educated population and an average home price of over 1 million dollars. Meals on Wheels clients live in palatial homes up the canyon or in a small home in a trailer park.
“Money doesn’t even respect age as you get older,” says Howlett.
Meals and Wheels operates with a staff of 10 and upwards of 300-350 volunteers. Kitchen staff comes in as early as 6:00am to begin cooking and preparing for service, while volunteers begin to arrive at 7:30am to help pack the meals to be delivered that day; each meal consists of a hot entrée, fruit, salad, bread and dessert.
Meals on Wheels accommodates a variety of dietary requests and restrictions, from dairy-free and low potassium, to even minced and pureed entrees for those clients who have difficulty swallowing. Creating hearty dishes that are not only nutritious, but also flavorful, goes beyond meeting the needs of just a discerning customer. As Howlett says, “We know that this $6 lunch is their food for the day.” And since Meals on Wheels is not governed by a Federal entity, they are not bound by a “one-size-fits-all” approach, “We can provide more vegetables than what the government allows.” Howlett says. Meals on Wheels Boulder regularly features ingredients like quinoa, orzo and goat cheese and offers menu items like Coq au vin and BBQ Beef Brisket; the meals are far from the mushy peas one might expect, “This is not your grandma’s meals on wheels,” says Howlett.
And I can attest—it isn’t.
Lunch at Café Classico
In addition to their delivery service, Meals on Wheels also operates Café Classico, a restaurant located inside the West of Boulder Senior Center that serves lunch from 11:30am – 12:30pm (Monday through Friday) and dinners on Tuesday evenings. I meet Howlett as her guest at the café, and enjoyed a meal of Turkey Tetrazzini (a pasta dish with mushrooms and turkey paired with a creamy parmesan sauce and topped with bread crumbs) and baked carrots with dill; also available was salmon with pineapple and brown rice, a mixed vegetable medley, salad bar, bread and even a selection of desserts (including a sugar-free option).
Each month a new menu calendar is published (in English and Spanish), where Chef de Cuisine Todd Fidler and Chefs Tyler CrazyBear and Kirk Salzer showcase a variety of cuisines that utilize “what’s available” in creative ways. The winter commands heartier dishes while in the summer they often benefit from local farms donating cases of fresh produce. But it’s the Tuesday night dinners and special staff parties where the chefs really like to “show off” Howlett says. As professional chefs who have worked several years in the restaurant industry prior to coming to Meals on Wheels, these special occasions are a time to showcase their skills in creating dishes like shredded Korean Pork Tacos to Chicken Cordon Bleu.
With the help from Chef Fidler, a 4th generation Boulder County resident who has been cooking in commercial kitchens most of his life, Meals on Wheels Boulder will soon be operating a robust quiche program. Featuring 7 different flavors of quiches (and growing), Chef Fidler has been experimenting with quiche combinations to sell the perfect frozen to table quiches that Meals on Wheels Boulder intend to sell to local coffee shops and cafes.
“There’s a lot of love here”
Many of the volunteers at Meals on Wheels have been with the organization for years, some as long as 15 years and some, like a volunteer I meet in the kitchen, Russ, who have also served on the board of directors. It’s clear that the café hosts familiar faces daily, not just with the customers but the staff as well; I listen as Howlett warmly shares stories about the published author completing an unpaid internship in the café kitchen, or Jose, who started washing dishes for Meals on Wheels, whose mother has a reputation for out-of-this world tamales.
Meals on Wheels has been serving the Boulder community for 69 years, and since the inception of its award-winning program “Project Homecoming” in 2007, Meals on Wheels Boulder has provided more than 4,000 free meals to individuals returning home following a hospital stay. Available to those throughout Boulder County, Project Homecoming supports individuals transitioning from hospital to home with hot, nutritious (and delicious) meals.
It’s clear that the family of volunteers and staff at Meals on Wheels are dedicated to the job and their customers. Despite always being short on volunteer drivers, Meals on Wheels rarely misses a day. Even with a string of bad weather recently, Meals on Wheels volunteers worked with the local Congregation Har HaShem to create hundreds of “Blizzard Bags” full of shelf stable food items to distribute to clients so they wouldn’t be left without in the event of a big storm.
Café Classico operates Monday through Friday from 11:30am to 12:30pm. For more information about Project Homecoming and other Meals on Wheels services, please visit https://www.mowboulder.org/.