Thursday October 06, 2016
He greeted me outside Three Cathedral Square in Burlington, wearing a seasoned apron, a cotton dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a Red Sox baseball cap – apropos attire for kitchen duty. The kitchen: the home of Burlington Meals on Wheels (MOWs), a private nonprofit that delivers meals to the elderly, and others in need, throughout the Burlington area. The man behind the apron: Peter Carmolli, South Burlington resident and Executive Director of MOWs since 1998.
The organization, which started in 1972, has delivered over two million meals to clients. With 85 percent of the older population suffering from chronic illnesses that can be helped by improved nutrition, more than 80 percent of clients are 60 or older. But MOWs also delivers to people in need of short-term services, like those recovering from an illness or surgery. Children too are served. According to Mr. Carmolli, about ten children in South Burlington currently receive meals. “Hunger is a tough issue in the summer because school isn’t in session.”
As Mr. Carmolli led me into the industrial-sized kitchen at Cathedral Square, the nutty aroma of boiled pasta made me feel as if I were walking into a restaurant serving home-cooked food. “This is for tomorrow’s meal,” he said, stirring a bin of freshly boiled corkscrew-shaped pasta. “Macaroni and Cheese.” The kitchen was quiet, but two hours earlier, at 8:30 a.m., an assembly line of five people, including Mr. Carmolli, worked together, filling three compartments of ovenproof trays: one with a scoopful of chickpea salad marinated in Italian dressing, another with a tongue-tingling three bean salad, and a third one with a slice of fresh-from-the-oven Italian bread.
“All meals are made and ready for delivery before 9:30 a.m. each morning,” Mr. Carmolli said, “all” meaning 250, an increase from the 150 meals delivered each day 18 years ago. Clients received two meals per day then, and currently receive one per day. When I spoke with 90-year-old Aline Demers, one of 25 South Burlington residents who receives meals, and who has been a client for the better part of a year, she said, the once-a-day meals are “more than adequate. Each one has its special delight.”
Each morning, one of three chefs prepares the meals, tweaking some for individuals with specific dietary needs. Work hours range from 7 a.m., or earlier, until noon. Mr. Carmolli, one of the chefs, arrived before 5 a.m. on the day we met. “I love what I do,” he said. It’s evident his fellow chefs feel similarly: one has been working for MOWs for 11 years, another chef for eight years. “We rarely have turnover,” Mr. Carmolli continued. “[They] have fun on the job. They pick on me, and I pick on them. Happy people make good tasting food.” Undoubtedly, the chefs are happy – when I ate the chickpea salad Mr. Carmolli gave me, my taste buds were happy too.
Mr. Carmolli is mindful about the food clients receive. “We don’t make anything we wouldn’t eat.” And he works with nutritionists to ensure all meals meet a variety of dietary needs. The ingredients come from Reinhart Foodservice, a national distributer with a local division in Burlington. With the goal of using as many local ingredients as possible, MOWs also obtains products from the Sunday South Burlington farmers’ market. David Zuckerman and his wife Rachel Nevitt, who run Full Moon Farm, have donated what Mr. Carmolli estimated as much as ten tons of food over the past 15 years. MOWS staff and volunteers work hard to make sure clients don’t go without food: If they need meals over the weekend or holiday, or if bad weather is predicted for the following day, volunteers deliver extra frozen meals in advance. If full trays are left at the end of the day, usually due to clients not being home, Mr. Carmolli offers them to the volunteers and chefs. Or he gives them to the homeless in the area.
Each meal costs approximately six dollars. But MOWs doesn’t charge clients; instead, they request donations. The rest comes from fund-raising events, grants, and private organizations like Champlain Valley Agency on Aging and the Vermont Independent Center for Living.
According to Mr. Carmolli, there are 300 MOWs volunteers during the summer, and a little more than half that number in the winter. Short of the 16 volunteers MOWs ideally needs, Mr. Carmolli too is a member of the delivery team. So are children: fifth graders from South Burlington’s Frederick H Tuttle Middle School make deliveries on the first Thursday of every month. The collective effort of MOWs is what helps keep people at home. As noted in the Burlington MOWs brochure, “[They] can feed one person for a whole year for less than it costs to spend one day in the hospital.”
More than the physical benefits, a 2015 Brown University study found that home-cooked meals offer social connections. “The human contact is important,” Mr. Carmolli emphasized. Sarah Dopp, South Burlington resident, and 14-year experienced MOWs volunteer, acknowledged in a phone conversation, “At the very least, they get to see people five days a week.” Ms. Demers is glad to see them. “The volunteers are pleasant,” she said. “I can’t praise them enough.” The volunteers reciprocate her sentiment. “They get attached to the people to whom they deliver,” Mr. Carmolli added, noting, “The average volunteer stays for years.”
The visits are also an opportunity for volunteers to do safety checks. “I might see something that isn’t right,” Ms. Dopp said. If volunteers are worried, they can call family, sometimes the hospital and, as a last resort, the police, but Mr. Carmolli assured me that doesn’t happen very often. “Don’t be afraid,” Ms. Dopp advised. “Join the bandwagon. One and a half hours, once a month is not too much to give.”
A hot meal, a friendly face, ninety minutes and, as Ms. Demers affirmed, “Each day is a surprise.”
For more information about Meals on Wheels, to donate and for volunteer opportunities go to: http://www.burlingtonmealsonwheels.com or call 802-862-6253.
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Correspondent