Operating a hearty meals program on a lean budget can leave one hungry for motivation.
Fortunately for Pam Almeida, executive director of Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels, she gets that daily.
“No matter what else happens, every night I know somebody ate because of us.”
Almeida says one of the biggest challenges she’s faced during her 17-year tenure was last fall’s windstorm, “when we realized how many people were depending on us for their next meal.”
But challenges are leavened by rewards.
“When we started our fresh produce program,” Almeida recalled, “I brought tomatoes to a client who had gardened years before, but no longer could. And when she held them up to her face and was so ecstatic, it reminded me of how empty life becomes when you’re stuck indoors.”
Almeida’s organization is among more than 5,000 community-based Meals on Wheels nutrition programs nationwide dedicated to addressing senior hunger and isolation.
During a recent interview, she discussed misperceptions about Meals on Wheels, the growing need for its services, and how the organization can lower health-care costs.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Almeida: In Coeur d’Alene.
S-R: What were your interests?
Almeida: When I was a teenager, my friends all predicted I’d be a psychologist. My favorite classes in high school were psychology and sociology.
S-R: How about outside of school?
Almeida: I was a reader – particularly science fiction by Isaac Asimov, and self-help books.
S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?
Almeida: I thought I’d be a social worker, so I earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from George Fox University in Oregon, then worked in mental health for 20-some years before joining Meals on Wheels.
S-R: What caused you to change careers?
Almeida: A couple of things. I was a community resource specialist with Spokane Mental Health when there was a major budget cut, and my position was one of the first to go. Also, I was burned out on mental health. So I answered a newspaper ad seeking an executive director for a small nonprofit, and was fortunate to land here.
S-R: What did you know about Meals on Wheels in 1999?
Almeida: I’d heard of it, but didn’t know it existed in Spokane.
S-R: What skills learned during your mental-health career transferred to this job?
Almeida: Dealing with all sorts of folks – clients, volunteers, employees and the public.
S-R: Did you have a mentor who helped you transition?
Almeida: Joan Kilian, one of our volunteers at the time who’s now on the board. She’s a very compassionate woman who leads by example.
S-R: What was Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels like when you arrived?
Almeida: We were truly a little nonprofit. Two of us ran it, and our annual budget was $125,000, compared with $1.7 million today. Back then we did 125 meals a day, and now we do 1,000.
S-R: Any favorite memories?
Almeida: My first day, somebody walked into the office and said, “I need help. I live out of town. My mom is here. I have to leave soon to go back home. She’s not eating. She needs somebody checking on her.” And we were able to say, “That’s us.”
S-R: Are there common misperceptions about Meals on Wheels?
Almeida: Yes. A lot of people think that it’s not very good food for poor people. Our food is delicious, and it’s for anybody who needs it.
S-R: How much do you charge for your service?
Almeida: We recommended a donation of $3.85 per meal.
S-R: What are your other revenue sources?
Almeida: Our primary one is a contract with Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington that brings us $650,000 in federal aid each year.
S-R: Describe your meals.
Almeida: We have a seven-week rotation. Each meal includes a main course, fruit and vegetable, a bread product, and milk or juice. We have our own kitchen, so we prepare all the meals ourselves. Clients get a hot meal on weekdays, plus two frozen meals for the weekend. And on big holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, we always deliver hot meals.
S-R: How do you decide on menus?
Almeida: We have a dietician on staff, and also get feedback from clients – what they like and don’t like.
S-R: What do they tell you?
Almeida: Favorites include meatloaf and pot roast. We get a few complaints on lentil casserole and lima beans, but some people love those, too. In general, our older seniors tend to prefer meat and potatoes or casseroles – old-fashioned comfort foods. Younger seniors like soups, salads, sandwiches – lighter fare.
S-R: Do they get a choice?
Almeida: Not unless they have dietary restrictions. We do offer two choices at our 13 Silver Cafes.
S-R: Where are those located?
Almeida: At senior centers, senior housing and churches throughout the county. We have paid managers at each site, but the rest are volunteers.
S-R: Who is eligible to dine at your Silver Cafes?
Almeida: Anyone 60 or older. To qualify for delivered meals, seniors must be homebound. Some of our clients are well off, but stairs prevent them from going out and purchasing groceries.
S-R: Besides delivering meals, what do your volunteers do?
Almeida: They check on the clients’ well-being. We often say, “It’s more than a meal.” If there are mental-health or dementia issues, volunteers may help clients open up their meals and encourage them to eat.
S-R: What if volunteers observe something disconcerting?
Almeida: If it’s a health or safety issue, we contact the appropriate people. There’s a fine line, though, as to whether it’s a lifestyle choice. If the client has the ability to make that choice, then it’s their choice. If they don’t, then we get them the help they need.
S-R: How many meals do volunteers deliver?
Almeida: I try to keep it at around 10.
S-R: How much time does a route require?
Almeida: An hour to an hour and a half. We prepare the meals at our central kitchen on Crestline, but deliver them to sites all over the county, so volunteers don’t have to drive out here.
S-R: Besides time, what does volunteering involve?
Almeida: They provide their own car and gas, and we require they pass a background check. The first day they go out with someone else, and if they’re comfortable after that, they’re on their own.
S-R: Did the recession have an impact on your organization?
Almeida: Absolutely. And the (2011 federal) sequester hit around the same time. Since then, we’ve gone from having a comfortable reserve to no reserve.
S-R: Besides the economy and politics, what factors affect your organization?
Almeida: The aging population – there’s more need.
S-R: Do you ever turn away eligible clients?
Almeida: There’s never been a waiting list, but we’re very close to having one.
S-R: Is there a busiest time of year?
Almeida: Right after the holidays. Family members visit and realize their relative isn’t eating.
S-R: Do you eat your organization’s meals?
Almeida: I do, though not every day. But someone in the office eats a test meal every day.
S-R: What’s your favorite?
Almeida: I’m vegetarian, so I eat around the meat products. My favorite meal is the lentil casserole.
S-R: Looking back, what’s been the biggest surprise?
Almeida: The goodness of people. After two decades of working with drug addiction and chronic mental illness, I was pretty burnt out on people. Here I rediscovered they can be really awesome.
S-R: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Almeida: Sometimes I wonder whether we grew too quickly.
S-R: What’s the outlook for Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels?
Almeida: We’re one of nine programs across the country looking at how to integrate with health care, because we can save the system a lot of money if people could get our meals as soon as they come out of the hospital. One-third of the people on Medicare who are discharged from hospitals are rehospitalized within a month. They need somebody checking on them and providing nutritious food, and that’s what we do.
S-R: What do you need to have a greater impact?
Almeida: It will take hospitals and insurance companies stepping forward and saying, “Yeah, you can save us money,” and helping pay for that service.
S-R: What sort of person is best suited for your job?
Almeida: Someone who can think on their feet, and has a passion for this.
S-R: What challenges lie ahead?
Almeida: Funding, and the ever-growing need for our services.
S-R: What’s at the top of your personal bucket list?
Almeida: I want to drive up north and see the midnight sun.
S-R: How do you relax?
Almeida: I love to hike.
S-R: Do you a have favorite route?
Almeida: Anything new!
This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to be profiled, contact Michael Guilfoil at firstname.lastname@example.org
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