Kosher meals on wheels
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Kosher meals on wheels

Not just about the food

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JFS of Bergen County recently received a warming cabinet from CareOne Inc. Celebrating the new addition are, from left, Melody Sandor, JFS volunteer coordinator, Dianne Nashel, JFS president, Lisa Fedder, JFS executive director, and Dr. Jeffrey Rubin, CareOne, Inc. executive vice president.

The program

While Jewish communal agencies of all kinds are coping with the economic crisis – whether through layoffs, restructuring, or cutting back on programs – some programs simply cannot be cut, says Lisa Fedder, executive director of Jewish Family Service in Bergen County.

“Kosher Meals on Wheels is a vital program that sustains people in the community; it helps them live at home,” she said.

Calling KMOW “a linchpin of our agency,” Fedder stressed that JFS is “extremely committed to the program – it’s who we are.”

According to Melody Sandor, JFS Bergen’s volunteer coordinator, the agency’s mission is to deliver a “nutritionally balanced meal … to homebound individuals 60 years of age and up as well as disabled persons of all ages who are unable to prepare their own meals and/or cannot shop for food, and do not have anyone to prepare their meals or do their shopping.”

While most recipients are Jewish, some are not. Fedder pointed out that even Jews who do not keep kosher might be uncomfortable receiving foods like pork and therefore choose to receive KMOW.

The food delivery program is also “a wonderful collaboration between agencies,” said Fedder, explaining that the venture involves not only JFS but UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. Still, she added, it’s expensive.

“It’s always a struggle,” she said of KMOW, which has been in operation for more than 25 years. “Everyone loses money on it, from federation, which helps cover the costs, to the Jewish Home, which prepares the meals.”

Cutting the program, however, is not an option. Instead, said Fedder, “we have to redouble our efforts to raise community awareness about hunger, isolated seniors, and the need for volunteers.” The solution, she said, has to be “community-wide.”

Fedder said that the recent donation of a warming cabinet from CareOne, Inc., a nursing and rehabilitation center in Teaneck, has allowed the agency to consolidate its administrative office and distribution site. Before the gift of the cabinet, meals needed to be heated at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

“Now we can get them earlier and keep them in the building,” she said. “It’s a smoother delivery system.”

Meals are prepared at and delivered from the Jewish Home at Rockleigh Monday through Friday. While some clients opt for frozen meals, most choose to get them heated.

“It’s our responsibility to keep the food at a certain temperature,” said Fedder. “The county comes to check.” She noted as well that volunteers use thermal packs to carry the meals so that they remain at the correct temperature.

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Volunteer Sandra Alpern of Washington Township delivers a meal to New Milford resident Milton Silverman as part of the Kosher Meals on Wheels program of Jewish Family Service of Bergen County.

The need

Last year, JFS in Teaneck delivered more than 24,000 meals. The year before, the figure was 22,000.

“At any one time, about 110 people are receiving meals,” said the JFS head. “It’s a moving target,” she added, noting that each year, the agency delivers food to between 170 and 190 people.

“My guess it that will keep increasing,” she said. “And there’s no new staff.”

Leah Kaufman, executive director of JFS of North Jersey in Wayne, has seen an increase of some 10 percent in requests for meals over the last several months. The KMOW program at her agency covers two distribution areas, Fair Lawn/Elmwood Park and Wayne.

The first group delivers to some 40 recipients; the Wayne contingent accounts for another 10 to 20 clients.

“The number fluctuates. People may be hospitalized or relocate or pass away. It’s a revolving door,” said Kaufman, pointing out that the agency’s KMOW program began in 1988 with a grant from the Altria Fund. While JFS no longer gets money from that source, “we still continue,” she said. And, she noted, she expects the number of recipients to rise even more steeply as the number of seniors is expected to increase and pensions are affected by the economic downturn.

Kaufman said that clients tend to be elderly, with many between the ages 70 and 85. Most of them are women.

Bergenfield resident Ruth Schwartz has been receiving meals from JFS of Bergen County for one or two years.

“I lose track,” said the 93-year-old, formerly from North Bergen.

Schwartz, who uses a walker, isn’t able to prepare her own meals. She receives KMOW five days a week from a diverse group of volunteers. Most are older women, she said, “but some are young women with children. They bring the children with them when they’re not in school.”

“They stop and chat,” said Schwartz, “though I don’t like to hold them up. I know they’re busy.”

“They’re all very nice,” she added, noting that she doesn’t worry when bad weather makes deliveries impossible because “we have emergency dinners in our freezer. They’re very thoughtful.”

Clients do not pay for their meals.

“But while the county can’t impose a fee, JFS asks for a suggested donation,” said Kaufman, adding that with finances now so stretched, her group has needed to “tighten up a bit” and now asks recipients to provide a reason why they need kosher food delivered.

Fedder agreed that money for the program is tight.

“The recipients do not cover the cost of the meals and no one covers the costs of the initial assessment, re-assessments, and training of volunteers,” she said.

The volunteers

Both Fedder and Kaufman stressed that volunteers – who deliver the meals – are the backbone of the program.

Bergen’s Sandor noted that the current roster of volunteers in Bergen County includes 90 women and 30 men. Most are between the ages of 40 and 60-plus, but three, she said, are under 21.

Seventeen-year-old Englewood resident Marc Poleyeff has a regular route, bringing meals to a 91-year-old woman in North Bergen every Friday. The 17-year-old student at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck – and son of the school’s principal, Arthur Poleyeff – has been driving the route for JFS of Bergen County since December.

Friday works well, “since I get out of school at 1:25,” he said, noting that his mother picks up the meal on Thursday.

The experience has been positive, both for Poleyeff and for the woman he visits.

“She’s happy to have a young person come to visit,” he said, adding that he always stops to chat for a while. “She tells me about her kids and her grandchildren. Also, she looks forward to talking to a young person each week.”

“It feels great to help someone who can’t cook meals on their own,” he added, noting that he encourages his friends to volunteer as well. Poleyeff said he plans to continue delivering meals until he leaves for Israel next year.

Most volunteers, however, tend to be older than Poleyeff.

“Some of the volunteers are older than the recipients,” said Fedder. “We’ve lost some of them to age. It’s harder for them to deliver.”

Also, she said, the cost of gas has been a factor for all volunteers, and some young moms have had to go back to work.

Fedder noted that most recipients, and drivers, live along the “Route 4 belt” – Teaneck, Paramus, Englewood, Fort Lee – but some live in North Bergen.

Volunteers are crucial, stressed Fedder, and not only economically. Sometimes, “they are the only eyes and ears of the outside world.”

“We teach all our volunteers how to be sensitive,” said Fedder, noting that the vetting process for volunteers includes both an application and the checking of references.

In training volunteers, “we tell them to look for emergencies,” she said. “For example, if they hear a TV and someone who usually answers the door does not come, they are told to notify us.”

In fact, she said, it was through this system that a client who had fallen was found lying semi-conscious on her floor. The volunteer grew suspicious when the client did not answer the door and called JFS, which called the local police. They got her medical help.

Kaufman said that the program has relied on volunteers since it was founded.

“It’s volunteer-driven, no pun intended,” she said. “That’s what makes it work. They’re the client’s connection to the community.”

Starting in May, she said, her agency will introduce more rigorous training for volunteers so that they will know what to look for when they make their rounds.

Donna Feigenbaum of Glen Rock has delivered KMOW for JFS of North Jersey for four years.

“The Chanukah after my husband died, I wanted to do something that would let me give to other people,” she said. “I saw [the program] advertised in the shul bulletin.”

Feigenbaum, whose weekly route takes her all over Fair Lawn and Elmwood Park, said her route has varied over the years.

“There’s a fair amount of turnover,” she said, adding that she has gotten to know some of the clients better than others. At present, she delivers to eight homes.

“Sometimes I give the meal directly to an aide or to someone who may be reticent” [about speaking], she said, but she has “gotten friendly with some of the people and they’re a pleasure to talk to.”

Feigenbaum said she keeps an eye out “for anything that looks unusual” when she makes her weekly deliveries. For example, if someone who always answers the door doesn’t respond to the bell, she may notify JFS. Or, if mail or newspapers seem to be piling up, she will report it.

The volunteer said she takes seriously her responsibility to be the client’s liaison with the outside world and looks forward to receiving more training.

“It’s wonderful doing a mitzvah,” she said, adding that delivering meals is not demanding in terms of time – she spends an hour from start to finish. In addition, when she can’t drive her route, she informs JFS and it finds a substitute driver.

Feigenbaum said she doesn’t often get to see the other volunteers, but when she does, “it’s like being part of a community.”

Still, said Kaufman, “there are never enough volunteers. The core of volunteers is aging, and some go away for the winter.” In fact, she said, sometimes the staff goes out to deliver the meals.

Both Fedder and Kaufman agree that the assessments performed when individuals apply for KMOW, as well as periodic follow-ups, are extremely important.

“It’s about the food – but it’s also about the volunteers and their connection to the homebound, to individuals who are isolated,” said Kaufman. “It provides us with an opportunity to enter our clients’ world and provide them with services.”

The cost

According to Fedder, the approximate cost of the program – including meals, staff, supplies, assessments, and background checks of volunteers – is $320,000. Food costs alone, based on the delivery of 25,000 meals, is $175,000. (While 24,000 meals were delivered last year, “we are trending to 25,000 this year,” said Fedder.)

To meet these expenses, JFS receives reimbursement for approximately 25,000 meals from UJA (some $109,375) as well as a disbursement of $5,600 from Bergen County for the volunteer coordinator. Other income is derived from donations from meal recipients or their families. In 2008, that figure was $24,700, down from $31,231 in 2007. This year, the agency expects to receive $23,000, bringing the total program income to $137,975.

Fedder pointed out that the difference between cost and revenue is $182,025, “a deficit that increases as the price of the meals increases and the cost of providing services increases.” She noted as well that the UJA-NNJ allocation received by the agency “is fungible money, used to cover an array of community programs” such as counseling, the job search network, refugee resettlement, adult care management, and financial assistance in addition to KMOW.

The JFS head further noted that while UJA allocations have decreased (down nearly 15 percent this year from the year before), “the Jewish Home at Rockleigh has talked about the increase in their costs – particularly after [Agriprocessors] was closed – and the cost to them of providing these meals.”

Kaufman’s group is facing similar difficulties. The budget for its KMOW program is more than $100,000, with 70 percent going toward the cost of food and 30 percent covering staff. Estimates are based on the delivery of 800 meals per month.

According to Kaufman, UJA-NNJ’s allocation covers slightly less than 50 percent of the cost of the food, with “the remaining 50 percent made up of client donations and donations from the community.” Not surprising, she said, “the program tends to run on a deficit.”

“Fortunately,” she added, “we have not had to turn anyone away. However, we do need to locate additional funding sources.”

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