On the first day of single-digit temperatures in 2016, Ralph Lemp packed the trunk of his Ford sedan with insulated bags of warm and cold meals before he headed out on his route.
When asked why he volunteers for Meals on Wheels, he responded with a simplistic yet straight forward answer: “Because people need to eat.”
For many veteran volunteers like Lemp, Fresh Meals on Wheels of Sheboygan provides an opportunity to give back to the community they have lived in for most of their lives. Similar to other Meals on Wheels programs across the state and nation, the program provides meals to people who cannot leave their home because of an illness, limited mobility, low income, recent surgery or other issues.
But Meals on Wheels of Sheboygan County, Inc. is anything but typical.
In 2012, Sheboygan Meals on Wheels became a national leader when it partnered with local farmers and growers to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into the meals. This allowed the organization to improve the quality of the meals and be a near-zero waste facility using sustainable practices.
Fresh Meals on Wheels also has its own gardens on-site where fresh produce is grown by volunteers. Around the Sheboygan area, donated land has also been designated to grow produce that will help supply the organization through the winter months as well.
It all adds up to higher-quality meals, lower costs and better service to its patrons. As a winner of the 2015 Insight Innovation Award for innovative process, Sheboygan Meals on Wheels was recognized by judges for involving local businesses in pioneering a healthy model that has become a national model for Meals on Wheels programs.
“Meals on Wheels is such a one-of- a-kind program and we want to make sure we are doing all we can to help reach out to community members,” says Ben Salzmann, CEO of Acuity, whose company donates resources, funds and employee time to support the program. “To bring smiles and help to the community is all worth the time and effort we put into the Meals on Wheels program.”
Acuity donated $50,000 in 2015 to Meals on Wheels above and beyond food upgrades the company sponsored throughout the year, Salzmann says. Acuity employees also volunteer their lunch breaks to deliver meals to area residents.
“With the innovative ways Meals on Wheels helps its clients, we wanted to make sure we were a part of that and help reach out to more people in need,” Salzmann says. “The approach they take to providing fresh ingredients for their meals is truly revolutionary.”
Organizers say clients were asking them to include fresh produce in each meal. Clients say they are happy to get fresh local food — or as many clients call it, “food-food.”
In an industrial kitchen approved by health agencies, you can see contributions made from close partnerships in the area.
“Local companies donate a lot of the appliances in our kitchen,” says Kelly Heyn, CEO for Sheboygan’s Fresh Meals on Wheels. “We basically stand with our arms held out and the blessings just continue to flow in for us.”
When a tray of food is prepared, a staff member scans the barcode on it to ensure the right person will be getting the meal, and that there is nothing in it that can harm them.
“Just because most of our food is fresh and is locally grown, does not mean it is safe for every person,” Heyn says. “That’s why we created a system that no one else has to ensure each meal complements our client and their dietary restriction.”
The magic begins after the meals are prepared. Around 11 a.m., in an organized frenzy that resembles the old TV game show Supermarket Sweep, volunteers rush in to grab a clipboard with their route information on it, as well as cold and warm meals.
Meals on Wheels has more than 1,100 volunteers who deliver food to more than 300 residents in Sheboygan.Like Lemp, the volunteers pack their vehicles full of meals and spread out throughout the Sheboygan area, no matter the weather.
There is no time to deal with Mother Nature’s wrath when it comes to delivering meals. Even the snowstorm that hit Wisconsin in the last week of December was not enough to stop volunteers.
“Even though snow emergencies were declared, our volunteers still showed up to make sure meals got out of the door and into homes,” says Noelle Boeldt, communications director. “That truly says a lot about the volunteers we have working for us.”
As Lemp walks up to the door of a client, she is all smiles to see the package he has for her.
“I cannot thank this organization enough for all they do,” says Joyce Olson, a client of Fresh Meals on Wheels. “At times I cannot get out to get groceries or have easy access to food and Meals on Wheels allows me to get the help I need.”
And on this coldest day of the year, volunteers are asked to check in on the temperatures of each home they go to, to ensure everyone has heat.
“That’s just part of our culture, and for some of our clients, money is tight,” Boeldt says. “We try to do everything we can to help out.”
ABOUT MEALS ON WHEELS OF SHEBOYGAN COUNTY
Meals on Wheels of Sheboygan County has been around since 1970, but innovation did not shine through until 2012. It was then that the organization ramped up its efforts to provide good food that is good for the body, which also resulted in them winning an Innovation Award in 2015.
Companies such as Kohler, Vollrath, Mayline, Sargento, Home Depot, Northwoods and Christopher Farm & Gardens, along with other foundations, were inspired by this new concept and contributed to the new facility that opened in November 2012. The facility combines the administrative offices with a state-of-the-art kitchen and produce processing center, which reduces the organization’s carbon footprint.
The organization also leads the implementation in modern green features at the facility that businesses are modeling after. These features include solar tube lighting in every room, recycled cork flooring, replaceable carpet tiles that can be easily cleaned and reapplied, edible landscaping, and a hood vent that redirects heat to a dish sanitizer.
As a testament to companies looking at Fresh Meals on Wheels in terms of innovation and involvement, the organization has accepted 9,000 pounds of produce from local farmers and home gardeners and over 125,000 meals have been prepared using produce grown on-site or donated to the organization.