SOUTHERN OCEAN COUNTY, NJ - For many Ocean County seniors, social distancing is not a novel concept. Even before concerns of the coronavirus hit locally, isolation had become a way of life. For some older residents, their sole daily contact came from the Meals on Wheels delivery person.

Jim Sigurdson is the Executive Director of Meals of Wheels of Ocean County, which is a private non-profit corporation of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Toms River. Twenty years ago, Sigurdson left a government position to take up the noble cause of feeding the elderly.

“About eighty percent of the program is subsidized by the government and private grants,” Sigurdson explained. “We don’t charge for meals but hope to make up the difference in donations from participants, their families and the community.”

Sign Up for Barnegat/Waretown Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

While the recommended donation is $2.00/meal, most people chip in about $1.00/meal. Nonetheless, no one is denied food because they can’t afford to pay.

Homebound residents over the age of 60 qualify for the delivery service. The federal government sets the criteria concerning eligibility requirements. In order to qualify, clients must be unable to prepare meals on their own. Additionally, applicants won’t be a match for the program if there is someone else available to help them with the preparation.

Wellness checks are essential parts of the menu items offered as part of Ocean County’s Meals on Wheels programs. They represent an integral part of keeping in touch with those faced with isolation.

“We require our drivers to make sure they see or hear our clients, “shared Kelly Denelsbeck, who serves as the organization’s transportation manager. “If something doesn’t seem right, we get in touch with the family member listed in our database.”

With the threat of the coronavirus, some seniors are requesting reduced contact. Meals on Wheels representatives have instructed them to put a table or a chair inside their home for their food drop off.

“Our drivers respect the request to keep their distance,” Denselbeck stressed. “However, we still need to see or hear the clients to make sure they’re okay.”

The wellness checks are a bonus to those who live alone. For example, a Meals on Wheels delivery driver could come across a client who suffered a medical event and is unable to get help. A call is immediately placed for emergency services.

The staff at Meals of Wheels of Ocean County is exceptionally dedicated, with at least twenty individuals working with the program for over ten years. Not one driver has asked to call out in the wake of the impending pandemic. Instead, they don gloves and are equipped with hand sanitizers. They also keep their conversations to a minimum.

In the Manahawkin facility, where workers prepare meals, it’s also quiet. There’s little to no interaction to avoid the unintentional release of respiratory droplets that could prove to be infectious.

Prior to the government’s call for social distancing, Meals on Wheels offered another service. Clients who could leave their homes were invited to congregate sites where they could sit and enjoy their meal with other people.

In Ocean County, Meals on Wheels services just under 1,000 senior residents on a regular basis. The menu is the same for everyone, five days a week. There’s a hot entrée, potato and vegetable packaged together. Additionally, a bag with milk, juice, fruit, and bread and butter accompany the hot meal delivery.

“We make deliveries between 9 am and 2 pm,” said Denselbeck. “Some people eat the food when it arrives, while others wait to microwave it.”

Meals on Wheels of Ocean County has always offered shelf stable food twice a year. During hurricane season and winter months, program participants are provided with a ten-day supply of non-perishable foods.

“We just made these distributions two months ago,” Sigurdson explained. “We’re now in the process of delivering the ten-day supply again.”

According to Sigurdson, the reason for the non-perishable deliveries are two-fold. First, there’s the possibility of someone homebound needing to quarantine.  Meanwhile, the agency could be called upon to shut down, and this would give people a food supply.

While Sigurdson obviously understands the necessity for subsistence, he also had a message for the general public.  “If you have an elderly relative or friend, help them through the isolation and loneliness,” he implored. “They need it and will appreciate it.”

These are trying times for many people. If you, a family member, or friend, might benefit from Meals on Wheels, you should give them a call at 609 978-6868. Applicants will then be directed to whatever senior outreach handles cases in their municipality