Every weekday at about 10:30 a.m., a steady stream of cars and volunteers make their way to the back of Providence Center off Orange Street.
They all are part of Meals on Wheels, a meal-delivery service spearheaded by Missoula Aging Services (MAS). Ask Susan Kohler, CEO of the nonprofit, about the program and she will speak glowingly about the 250 volunteers who help deliver meals to elder adults and other people who cannot cook for themselves.
Monday through Friday they deliver some 2,300 hot and sometimes frozen meals to get people through the weekend, which adds up to more than 100,000 a year total. Missoula Meals on Wheels now serves over 325 people per day, which is an increase of around 40% since the beginning of the pandemic.
The group's 18 different routes reach all through Missoula County.
"If you look around the country, there are a lot of wait lists because they can't meet the demand," Kohler said on Thursday. "We've always been able to do that and we're just really happy about that. And it's because our community is awesome."
It is a critical service and as March comes back around, so does the organization's annual March for Meals. They are seeking to raise $85,000 to help continue to fund the program. Other money comes through the Older Americans Act, as well as funding from the state, city and county.
Outside of a contract with Thomas Cuisine, which makes the food for the program, there are also bags — which plug into vehicle cigarette lighters to keep the meals hot — as well as coolers in the winter that occasionally need to be bought or replaced. The money raised will help the program meet increased demand.
The Thomas Cuisine staff works for the Providence Center and prepares the meals in the cafeteria, which conveniently connects to a loading dock that Meals on Wheels uses to transfer the food to volunteer vehicles.
"Their expertise was being chefs and caterers at the same time, but they realize what it takes to provide dietary requirements, especially when it comes to diabetes or renal diets," explained Dean Thompson, nutrition program manager for Missoula Aging Services.
Meeting those dietary restrictions means each meal bag is individually tagged for the household it goes to. It is a large and involved undertaking, but a logistical possibility due to hours of work dedicated each week by volunteers and organizers.
COVID-19 has changed things for the organization. Before the pandemic, volunteers would go into homes and speak with the people they were serving, as well as occasionally come back to do other things around the homes if need be.
Now, especially considering many of the people they serve are at higher risk of more serious effects of the coronavirus, distancing and safety are paramount. Temperatures are checked and volunteers go through medical screenings before they can deliver.
Once on the routes, the volunteers leave the meals at the doors and then check up on those people at a distance. With many people in social isolation, it can be tough for them, and those checkups — even at a distance — mean a lot.
Meals on Wheels also used to serve food at community centers, but the pandemic has shut that down as well.
"People don't get to go out and see their friends and things like that, which has been a challenge," Kohler said. "So this program helps with that, too."
With vaccinations coming in greater amounts, Missoula Aging Services has also been able to distribute information from the Missoula City-County Health Department to those individuals.
The program is meant for individuals who aren't able to cook for themselves. Those looking for information can call 406-728-7682.
"We've seen an uptick, fortunately, in contributions and donations from the community," Thompson said. "But we couldn't do it without March for Meals and the money that comes in in that month."
Jordan Hansen covers news and local government for the Missoulian. Contact him on Twitter @jordyhansen or via email at Jordan.Hansen@Missoulian.com