A bumpy road for Meals on Wheels

Every morning before the sun rises, the lights come on at the North Boulder Meals on Wheels (MoW) location. The kitchen comes alive with a host of volunteers and a handful of paid staff who prepare 150-250 meals a day; chopping vegetables, cooking food, crafting special orders to request, and labeling each one before loading them into delivery vehicles and shipping them across the city. Each and every one of those meals is personally delivered to community members in need.

“We make 22 routes a day and each route has between seven and 10 stops. So we use 121 conductors a week,” explains Francea Phillips, president and CEO of the MoW of Boulder program. “It’s this massive activity every morning just preparing the meals and then packing them up and delivering them.”

It’s an operation that she likens to running a military unit, with all the planning, scheduling, and problem solving. An operation that becomes increasingly difficult to carry out as inflation rises and supply chain failures make it difficult to access resources and ingredients.

“I know that every home feels [the pinch]Phillips says. “But when you try to do something this big and for this many people, it’s life or death.”

That is not hyperbolic. Some people won’t eat without that food delivered to their door every day. The consequences of not providing that livelihood can be serious, says Phillips.

Bagged meals ready for delivery to MoW customers in Boulder. Courtesy of Meals on Wheels.

Boulder’s MoW program is unlike most others across the country. At its core, the mission is the same: to provide nutritious meals for community members in need, delivered right to their doors for free. But MoW of Boulder is different in some ways. First, the monthly menu is typically packed with foods like fried chicken, pork marsala, lemon butter chicken, and even baby back ribs, a favorite among their patrons. They also allow people to make special requests for dietary restrictions and even personal preferences. If you are vegetarian, they can always make you a vegetarian dish. If you just don’t like cooked carrots, they’ll make sure your meal doesn’t include them. Phillips says that about 85% of the meals they ship are custom orders.

“[I treat] every customer like my mother. They deserve respect, choice and dignity,” says Phillips. “We need to ask our customers what feels good [eat].”

Second, the Boulder MoW receives no federal or state funding. On the one hand, that limits capital resources, Phillips admits, but more importantly, it allows Boulder’s MoW to serve who wants to serve She explains that if Boulder MoW were to accept federal funding, it would only be allowed to serve qualified community members of a certain age or income level. A quarter of Boulder’s MoW clients are under the age of 60.

“I just don’t want anyone to tell me who we can [and can’t] serve,” Phillips says. For her, MoW is much more than a home-based soup kitchen or end-of-life service. It’s a community resource available to anyone who wants to use it, no matter the reason.

That independence also means MoW of Boulder relies solely on corporate, foundation and public donations, in addition to money raised through creative social mission ventures. MoW of Boulder founded Think Goodness Foods, a restaurant-quality frozen pie and quiche company, in 2019, and opened The Niche Market grocery store attached to MoW’s kitchen in early 2022. All profits from both companies will be used to fund the organization. MoW also purchased a new facility three years ago in North Boulder, so it no longer rents space. Phillips says there’s still $1 million left on the mortgage, but once it’s paid off, the nonprofit will have even less overhead.

Just one of the 250 salads that Meals on Wheels of Boulder prepares and packages every day. Courtesy of Meals on Wheels.

The annual budget for MoW of Boulder is approximately $1.3 million. But that is being diluted by the current situation. With the rising cost of food and supply chain issues clogging the arteries of commerce, the cost of feeding hundreds of hungry people for free every day is becoming exorbitant. In the past year, the price of eggs is up 11%, the price of milk is up 13%, flour is up 14%, and bacon jumped 18%. Overall, grocery prices are up 10% from last year, according to CNN reports. MoW of Boulder’s grocery bill has more than doubled this year, from $13,000 a month to $30,000, says Phillips.

The reasons for those price increases are all over the place: In the case of pork, it largely has to do with labor shortages at meat facilities caused by COVID and an increase in demand for meat. of pork as people cook more at home. For many agricultural products, the reasons are environmental, as droughts in Brazil, Canada and the US caused shortages of coffee, soybeans and wheat. And, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), slow production, low “hatchability” rates, and higher anticipated feed costs are to blame for more expensive eggs. Not to mention an outbreak of highly contagious bird flu that forced farmers to kill millions of laying hens.

And it’s not just getting more expensive, Phillips says; many ingredients are increasingly difficult to find. MoW of Boulder plans their menus a month in advance so patrons know what to expect and whether or not they have any special requests. That has become a challenge as items like chicken and certain vegetables are available one week and not the next. The supply chain is not as reliable as it was a year ago, she says.

Bill Thayer is the CEO of Fillogic, a logistics company that helps companies streamline retail, real estate, and shipping operations. He has witnessed the global supply chain buildup firsthand and says the MoW of Boulder story is becoming commonplace.

“[The cost of operation] it has never been as expensive as it is now,” says Thayer. He explains that the pandemic increased e-commerce by a factor of 10, which put 10 times more pressure on the supply chain. At the same time, people were getting sick, businesses were closing, jobs were being lost, and ships full of shipping containers were backed up by the hundreds. Now, he says, add currency inflation, skyrocketing gasoline prices and a war in Ukraine to the equation and it’s a recipe for turmoil. Companies and organizations like MoW of Boulder will struggle to get the resources they need for a while, Thayer predicts.

“There is a ‘new normal,’” he says. “These [supply chain] networks have to be much more flexible”.

He compares supply chain problems to a stone thrown into a pool: small rocks create small ripples (or supply chain disturbances). In the world of commerce, small rocks are expected. But what has happened since March 2020 is more like a rock being thrown into the water.

“There’s so much churning in that pool that people are going to drown,” he says. No matter what the business (or non-profit organization) is, keeping your head above water will require tenacity and innovation.

A Meals on Wheels customer receives their meal, personally delivered to their door. Courtesy of Meals on Wheels.

Luckily for Boulder, Phillips is leading MoW with a healthy dose of both.

“We’re trying to find every way we can to cut costs,” Phillips says. “It requires more creativity than anyone can imagine.”

She describes how they’ve cut costs from their margins: They stopped including salad dressing with the salads they pack with every meal. They have also stopped using white and brown paper bags to designate personalized plates of standard meals, as the cost of white bags has increased. And they’ve changed their menu to offer cheaper proteins like tuna instead of much more expensive options like those baby back ribs that were so popular.

“We can not do [those meals] more,” she says. “And it’s sad because those were special foods for people. They really loved that.”

Phillips is also trying to get USDA approval for Think Goodness Foods so MoW of Boulder can sell its pies and quiches in grocery stores across the country. Not only could that help offset the rising cost of food, but it could also provide additional capital to pay off the mortgage on the new building.

“Yes [we] had that mortgage paid, [we] I could do 1,500 more meals a month,” Phillips says.

Despite all of these creative ideas and all of MoW of Boulder’s efforts to cut costs, he still needs help. If this is the “new normal,” donations are really the only way MoW will be able to maintain the quality of service it has been providing to Boulder’s most vulnerable residents.

“If there is any way we need to change, we will. What we can do, we will do,” says Phillips. Because failure is not one of [our] options.”

And while Thayer doesn’t think the supply chain will go back to the way it was any time soon, he is hopeful that this new normal will stabilize for organizations like MoW, that the pool water will eventually become calmer.

“As someone who has been in the supply chain for a long time, the supply chain always notices,” he says. “I think we’re still figuring this out right now.”

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To donate to MoW of Boulder, volunteer, or both, visit mowboulder.org.

Email: wbrendza@boulderweekly.

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