More than a meal: Sauk County program delivers support to seniors

March 23, 2019

As Michelle Commings entered an elderly Baraboo man’s home to deliver a hot meal Wednesday afternoon, she smiled, asked how he was doing and bent down to greet his dog.

After a brief conversation, she was out the door and on her way to the next stop with insulated bags loaded into her van. The meals inside each consisted of lasagna, Italian vegetables, mixed fruit, garlic bread, a milk box and a large cookie donated by a North Freedom bakery.

For more than 15 years, Commings has been a volunteer driver for the Sauk County Aging and Disability Resource Center’s Meals on Wheels program. The Sauk County Clerk’s Office employee said she doesn’t mind giving up her lunch break to run a delivery route.

“You get so attached to the people,” she said. “You just enjoy it.”

Each weekday, when lunchtime rolls around, Commings walks out of the county’s downtown Baraboo office building, hops into her van hits the road.

Her first destination is Highpointe Commons, an elderly housing complex on the city’s east side that serves as one of five ADRC senior dining centers throughout the county.

There, Commings loads hot, ready-to-eat meals into her vehicle before heading out on her route. She typically hits between eight and ten stops before heading back to work.

At the home of an elderly woman who is deaf Wednesday, Commings wrote on a notepad to communicate and laughed at the woman’s sharp-witted responses. At an apartment, she simply announced herself, left the meal on a table and walked out as a man shouted “thank you” from another room.

The federally subsidized Meals on Wheels program seeks to address senior hunger and isolation, providing vulnerable people with access to nutritionally balanced meals.

There is another component to the program. Commings said she gets to know the people along her route, and keeps a watchful eye on them. “If I notice that something’s off, I will ask the ADRC to follow up,” she said.

Growing program

Meals on Wheels America reports that federal funding has failed to keep pace with the growing number of people who would benefit from the program. As a result, eight out of 10 low-income, food-insecure seniors nationwide are not receiving the home-delivered meals they need, according to the organization’s website.

ADRC Nutrition Director Jennifer Kamrowski said Sauk County is fortunate to have no waiting list for its program, which is budgeted to cost about $397,000 in 2019. That’s mainly because county government kicks in about $159,000 in local tax dollars to support it.

Remaining funds come from an anticipated $123,000 in donations and $115,000 in grants, according to the county’s budget.

In February, the county served 4,583 meals. That total consisted of 3,550 home-delivered meals and 1,033 served at the five dining sites. During the same month in 2016, the total was 4,387.

“It seems that our older American population is growing,” Kamrowski said. “They’re living healthier and longer lives, so there’s an increased need.”

She said the program would not be possible without the support of volunteers, and that the county is always in need of drivers, especially in Baraboo and Reedsburg. Even one day a week is helpful, Kamrowski said.

Because of dwindling participation, the county recently closed a dining site in Spring Green that also was the hub for a home-delivered meals route serving 10 people.

Kamrowski said the county continues to deliver the same number of meals to those Spring Green clients. However, they now receive multiple frozen meals at once on a less frequent basis.

Socialization is key

Rob Zanon, 69, of Rock Springs, has been eating at the Baraboo dining center for about two years, ever since his wife started volunteering with the program. The retired Columbia County jailer’s favorite summertime meal is hamburgers. In the winter, he enjoys the roast beef.

“Also, we like the social aspect,” Zanon said, adding that he makes a donation with each meal. “It’s nice to meet people.”

On most days, he said, there are between eight and 12 people who eat lunch at the site, although sometimes there are as many as 20. They get to know each other over time, and use the meals as a chance to catch up on what’s happening in their lives.

Sauk County Board Chairman Peter Vedro of Baraboo was one of five state and local officials who accompanied volunteer delivery drivers on their routes this week. He said the experience opened his eyes to the importance of community support for home-bound seniors.

Other participating officials included state Reps. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, and Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, state Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Sauk County Administrative Coordinator Alene Kleczek.

“It’s not just the meal, it’s the human interaction,” Vedro said. “It’s about not being alone.”