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Meals on Wheels provider hopes participants will warm to microwaveable meals

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Meals on Wheels provider hopes participants will warm to microwaveable meals

SCARBOROUGH — The local organization that runs the southern Maine Meals on Wheels program has implemented a change to its food preparation that will allow it to continue and potentially expand its level of service.

But just the word change can be hard to swallow.

Director of Healthy Aging Edward Trainer, who heads the meal delivery program through the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, said the switch in April from meals cooked in bulk each morning, five days a week at a kitchen in Saco, to flash-frozen meals prepared several weeks in advance in Bangor, will save money without capping the number of participants or reducing the number of delivery days, as some programs in other areas have been forced to do.

And without shutting down the service entirely.

Overall, the response has been positive, Trainer said, with 90 percent of those in the program saying the new meals are much better or at least as good as the old ones. But at senior gatherings where SMAA has served the meals, some people have refused to taste them once they've found out the food was frozen.

From a marketing perspective, Trainer admitted he "made a mistake" by announcing the food had been frozen before giving people a chance to try it. He said he believes many seniors may associate frozen meals with the TV dinners of the 1950s and 1960s – perceived as a "convenience" food used as a substandard substitute when a traditional housewife was too busy to prepare a home-cooked meal.

But the reality today, Trainer said, is that most restaurants routinely heat and serve prepared frozen entrees to their patrons. With the advancements in flash-freezing and reheating techniques and the improvements to quality, frozen meals can be more nutritious, more flavorful and safer for the program to serve because they haven't been cooking and kept warm for hours in advance.

At a time when flat government funding and decreased corporate and foundation support have forced cutbacks to many Meals on Wheels programs, each frozen meal prepared by Jeanie Marshal Foods of Bangor saves SMAA 30 cents – not insignificant considering the organization delivers 200,000 meals annually.

The savings increase, too, because there is less waste. Under the old system, any time a senior was not at home to take the delivery, the meal went to waste. But in the new program, two-thirds of the seniors have requested their meals be delivered cold so they can heat them at their convenience. This allows drivers to return undeliverable frozen meals to the program's freezers in the kitchen at Brighton Medical Center to be used another time.

The Bangor food company that prepares and packages the meals supplies all the food for Bangor International Airport's international flights, Trainer said. Jeanie Marshal follows senior nutritional guidelines when making all 50 different selections for the Meals on Wheels program. It is an FDA-inspected facility and no preservatives are used in the preparation, he said.

While the company does offer some diabetic meals, SMAA has an arrangement with Brighton Medical food service to provide meals for more specialized diets.

Under the old food service, SMAA used to distribute the meals from the Salvation Army in Portland. With the new frozen meals, that operation has been moved to Brighton Medical
Center, where the kitchen was outfitted with a 49-cubic-foot freezer and convection ovens.

But even with a positive response to the new meals, the Meals on Wheels program has an image problem, Trainer said.

Many people still believe it is only available for low-income seniors. But the service is open to any senior over 60, especially those that are frail or homebound.

"There are people out there – we're convinced of this – who could really benefit from this who think, 'it's not for me,' because it's a subsidized program," he said.

But it's not just about food.

Just as vital is the personal contact the 300 volunteer drivers make with the folks on their routes. These volunteers have at times saved lives by calling for medical help after discovering one of their seniors has taken ill or fallen. And for some of the seniors on the program, a Meals on Wheels volunteer is the bright spot of their day and one of the few people they may talk to during the week.

Although the program suggests a $3 donation per meal to cover a portion of the $6-per-meal cost, it never turns anyone away. With comfort foods like chicken pot pie and meatloaf, pork medallions and ham steak, all designed to be cooked five minutes in a microwave, Trainer said he hopes the variety and the portion size may make folks wonder why they didn't sign up sooner.

He said his personal favorite is the shepherd's pie.

"When I asked the cook at Jeanie Marshal's, 'How did you come up with this one?' she said it was her grandma's recipe," he said.

For more information on signing up to receive meals or to volunteer to serve at a senior dining center or as a driver, call 396-6500 or 800-400-6325.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.