Nonprofits scramble to bring food to medically fragile in isolation
Published - 03/30/20 - 01:00 PM | 4040 views | 2 2 comments | 74 74 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Serving Seniors went from delivering 800 meals a day to over 4,000 by March 20.
Serving Seniors went from delivering 800 meals a day to over 4,000 by March 20.
With seniors and immunocompromised people being asked to self-isolate because they are most at risk of dying from COVID-19, grocery shopping has become a risky trek when proper nutrition is desperately needed. While there are grocery delivery options, many are over capacity. For low-income people who are medically fragile, their options are more limited, making the work of local nonprofits more integral than ever even while how nonprofits operate is more limited than ever.

“Our efforts of providing home-delivered meals to these people became even more important because by taking the food to them, they don't have to go out into the world and be exposed to more people than they absolutely have to,” said Mama’s Kitchen CEO Alberto Cortés. Some people that would normally be able to care for themselves, need to limit their exposure and are seeking help for the first time. Others have just been laid off work and are struggling to provide for their families amid grocery store shortages.

While food banks and pantries are operating normally or even increasing output, senior and school feeding programs have transitioned to a grab-and-go model or delivery.

For one organization, the scramble to address the situation began on Thursday, March 12 when the county called at 4:30 p.m. to let Serving Seniors know they could not operate their congregate dining centers the next day. The team worked overnight to make the meals-to-go so seniors could pick them up and leave. In the next few days, they switched to full delivery service except at the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center in Downtown where they have kept the pick-up option because so many homeless seniors depend on it.

In a matter of days, Serving Seniors had to close all of its senior center sites where they served meals and transition to meal delivery with limited contact. At the same time, they had to scale up to bring food to thousands of more seniors than usual during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The local nonprofit went from delivering 800 meals a day to over 4000 by March 20 when they cut off requests for meals because they were overwhelmed. By April 1, they are hoping to raise enough money to expand by another 2,000-3,000 meals per day.

“This is akin to building an airplane in flight. We had a number of contingency plans over every potential scenario we could think of. We have a nice thick binder with all sorts of contingency plans, but none of them applied to this,” said Paul Downey, Serving Seniors CEO for 25 years.

The transition has not been without snarls: Voice of San Diego reported people living in a Serving Seniors apartment building were not given a regular delivery of food and the people were left stranded for a few days.

The contingency plans included what to do if a site burned down or the kitchen was out of action. “But never a contingency for having all 15 of our senior centers shut down overnight and trying to retool to home-delivered operation and add capacity all at the same time,” he explained.

The organization went through 9/11 and the recession of 2008, both of which required them to operate in an uncertain environment. However, nothing has been remotely close to this, especially with the “big wildcard” of how long the quarantine will last.

Even Feeding San Diego, which was founded in the wake of the 2007 wildfires for emergency food distribution, said disaster response is in their DNA but COVID-19 has brought new challenges because of the breadth and scale of the disaster.

Other nonprofits are also ramping up deliveries as more calls come in asking for help. Mama’s Kitchen typically delivers food to 400-450 San Diegans with underlying conditions like cancer, HIV, heart disease and diabetes. They have started delivering food to 500 people since the crisis began.

“We are serving more people than we ever have in our 30-year history right now,” said Cortés. “It’s a 10% increase in the last week and a half alone.”

Mama’s Kitchen is also incurring a cost of $25-35,000 to provide shelf-stable food that goes beyond their typical deliveries so the people they serve are “better equipped to take care of themselves, at least from a nutritional standpoint.”

ElderHelp has brought groceries to enrolled seniors every two weeks for decades. Since the start of the crisis, they have increased telephone counseling and check-in calls, but are facing more difficulties with reaching as many seniors as are requesting the grocery service. In addition, volunteers give rides to seniors, but those trips have been limited to only medically necessary trips to doctor’s appointments and hospitals since the crisis began.

“We have no limit to who we're bringing on for support via telephonic support and counseling. There is a limit right now as to how much we can do around vital trips and grocery shopping delivery, primarily because we're having a hard time getting groceries to begin with. That's the biggest challenge facing us right now,” said ElderHelp executive director Deb Martin.

ElderHelp has a partnership with Jacobs & Cushman food bank, but the food bank has restricted how much each person can pick up, so volunteers are limited in how much they can bring to the seniors. “[The food bank] is having a hard time as well,” Martin said.

In addition to a lack of food and funds, volunteer-driven organizations are struggling to find ways to protect volunteers and fill gaps caused by those staying home. Both Mama’s Kitchen and ElderHelp asked seniors to stop volunteering.

“Many of these folks have been volunteering with us for years, sometimes decades. We are very much wanting for them to take care of themselves during this time,” Cortés said.

Since many retirees with free time made up the bulk of their volunteers, the organizations are quickly recruiting and training new volunteers.

ElderHelp moved its volunteer training online and aims to approve 50 new volunteers every month for the next few months. Mama’s Kitchen held urgent volunteer training with over 60 people at one event (standing six feet apart from each other).

The lack of volunteers is a statewide issue at food banks. Governor Gavin Newsom authorized 500 members of the California National Guard to step in for them at food distributions across the state.

Other government help came from the county, which authorized funds for Serving Seniors to cover the cost of additional meals. The organization is urgently raising $50,000 to ramp up its infrastructure to deliver those meals.

Another silver lining in the storm, according to Martin, is that people are finally realizing the precarious place seniors occupy in society.

“ElderHelp has been providing these services for 46 years. It's been incredibly hard to get the support and have people notice our aging community and support it. People are starting to notice that this population is vulnerable and needs our help and support,” she said. “It's great to see so many people stepping up and wanting to do something for the seniors in the community.

“I'm grateful to be part of this organization because I get to witness the best of people in the worst of times. I'm grateful for how our community really does step up,” Cortés said. “I invite people in San Diego to do whatever they can to support our community. Either making that contribution to Mama's Kitchen or to any organization that's out there making a difference in the community and people to be kind and caring and self-caring, patient and loving.”

Kendra Sitton can be reached at

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