By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
When student Alexis Harp first volunteered with the University of North Florida’s “Meals on Wings” program, she thought the program sounded great, but she was mostly thinking about earning service hours for her nutrition degree.
“It became so much more than the hours,” said Harp, a University of North Florida senior and Student Issues Committee chair for the Florida Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She also serves as the Nutrition and Dietetics Leadership Association treasurer. “The passion for this program is obvious. We get to hand-deliver meals to seniors, and you can tell how appreciative they are.”
According to Dr. Jenifer Ross, University of North Florida assistant professor and Director of Didactic Program in Dietetics for the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, Meals on Wings began in the summer of 2018 as a way to serve homebound seniors on a wait list for Meals on Wheels in Duval County. Currently, 85 seniors are fed five meals a week with food donated by Brooks Rehabilitation and Baptist Health Systems that would otherwise be wasted.
Student volunteers pick up the donated food and transport it in a refrigerated van back to the UNF Nutrition and Dietetics kitchen and repackage it into healthful balanced meals using Registered Dietician professors such as Ross to oversee the meal prep. About 28,000 pounds of food has been recovered and more than 20,500 meals have been delivered so far, said Ross.
Ross said the group looks at texture, color and balance and sends meals that they are willing to eat as well. All meals are labeled with the date, an ingredient list and heating instructions.
“We deliver with integrity,” said Ross. “It is really special, and it is more than a meal.” Harp, who plans to become a Registered Dietician, agreed.
“We aim for colorful meals with different textures. We want the meals to be enticing and exciting,” she said. “We really get to see how food insecurity affects patient outcomes.”
In some cases, the student volunteer is the only person the homebound senior will see all day, and it can sometimes be their only meal, Ross said. Thanksgiving meals were made special this year when a University of North Florida faculty member donated holiday ingredients for the group to prepare so that seniors received a traditional meal complete with pumpkin pie.
Harp, who has been a volunteer since August 2019, can attest to the strong relationships often formed between students and seniors. In fact, delivery is her favorite part of the program. During the pandemic, Harp called some of the seniors on her route just to check on them.
“I have learned so much about food insecurity, and I am much more empathetic now seeing this first hand,” said Harp. “It is heartbreaking.”
Ross said COVID made it more difficult to run the program, but meals never stopped being prepped and delivered during this time, and Meals on Wings strictly follows all health and safety guidelines. Also,
additional seniors needing meals were added as a result of the pandemic, and Ross intends to keep these seniors on their delivery list.
Baptist Health Community Investment and Impact Vice President Melanie Patz said Baptist values its partnership with Meals on Wings.
“Baptist Health’s vision of ‘A Lifetime of Health, Together,’ calls for us to reach outside of our walls to ensure people have everything they need to be healthy, including access to healthy food. We are pleased to provide funding and food to Meals on Wings to ensure vulnerable seniors on a waiting list for home-delivered meals have healthy food to eat.”
Meals on Wings’ future goals include expanding the year-round program to reach more seniors by finding more business partnerships. Ross surveys clients when they first start the program and then three to six months later to evaluate well-being, nutrition, loneliness and food security. Ross works with area agencies to identify the seniors at the highest nutrition risk.
“Typically, all of these categories improve, and this survey helps to show that the program is working. And this helps with funding,” said Ross, adding that the program is completely volunteer run and grant funded.
Visit www.unf.edu/brooks/Center_for_Nutrition_and_Food_Security/ for more information on Meals on Wings or to donate.
Photo courtesy Jenifer Ross
Meal preparation at the University of North Florida