On Wednesday, as orders to shelter at home went into effect in the city of Miami, Yuri Kouzenkov was out and about.
Outfitted in gloves, a mask, and a plastic gown, Kouzenkov was busy delivering batches of meals to the homes of seniors, a task that put him on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has inflicted the brunt of its harm on the elderly.
“It feels amazing to be part of a ... process that’s helping out the community and the people that are in the greatest need today,” said Kouzenkov, who works for DeliverLean, a contractor hired last week by the county to help feed newly home-bound seniors at no cost to them.
Kouzenkov was just one among dozens of drivers mobilized this week, as a network of local governments, nonprofits, and private companies ramped up food-delivery efforts across Miami-Dade’s senior communities.
The goal is twofold: As county officials explain, meal deliveries help meet the nutritional needs of older residents at a time of general upheaval, all while making it easier for them to forgo trips to public spaces and practice social distancing.
Key to the county’s endeavor is a new emergency meal program that residents 60 and over can sign up for by dialing 311, the county’s government help line.
The new meal program — which was made available after Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez declared a state of emergency on March 11 — gives residents free access to recurring home deliveries of batches of 10 fresh, vacuum-sealed meals.
As of Friday, 159,820 meals have been delivered to over 15,000 residents, a number that keeps growing.
“Just [on Monday], we had 1,285 residents in the county getting their doors knocked on with 10 days’ worth of meals,” said Annika Holder, assistant director of Miami-Dade’s Community Action and Human Services Department, the largest social services provider in the county. “That’s a lot of door knocks.”
To take on the door-knocking, and the actual preparation of the meals, the county enlisted DeliverLean, a Hollywood-based company that sells prepared meals across South Florida.
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DeliverLean prepares the food — offering tailored options that include vegan, kosher, and diabetic-friendly, low-sodium meal plans — and dispatches 150 drivers across the county every day to make the deliveries.
At a time when unemployment claims have spiked across South Florida and the rest of the country, DeliverLean has been expanding its staff to keep up with new orders from the county, often hiring workers who recently lost jobs in the region’s hard-hit hospitality industry.
“A lot of local restaurants, hotels, stadiums, airports have been actively sending us their employees to hire,” said CEO Scott Harris, “We have hired over 150 people in the last week to meet the demand.”
The 311 emergency meal program DeliverLean helps operate serves folks who weren’t previously enrolled in the county’s already existing food assistance programs for seniors.
“These individuals either live alone or they live with someone who’s also in their age range. They’ve expressed either that they have underlying health challenges, they are scared to go out, or they are living in areas where they may have limited access to food,” said Holder. “In some cases, their support system may not have been put in place. So we’re seeing a variety of things coming up.”
“Our main goal here is to make sure that the nutritional health of our elderly residents in Miami-Dade county is not impacted by this crisis. That’s our number one underlying goal,” she added.
There was no immediate estimate on how much Miami-Dade has spent and will continue to spend on this new initiative.
“Every day the amount of meals is growing exponentially,” said Harris.
EXPANSION OF MEALS ON WHEELS
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the county’s Community Action and Human Services Department already provided free meals for seniors aged 60 and over through two different programs.
Meals on Wheels delivered batches of seven frozen meals once a week to about 500 homebound seniors. For those who weren’t homebound, there existed the option to get a free hot meal once a day at one of 21 senior centers operated by the county, a program that about 1,600 people were enrolled in.
Though Meals on Wheels currently “goes on uninterrupted” and unchanged, according to Holder, Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s decision to close down senior centers on March 16 meant the department had to adjust the way it served able-bodied folks who previously visited centers’ cafeterias to get their free daily meal.
The result was an expansion of the county’s meal-delivery operations.
Starting on the 16th, the county delivered a boxed lunch every day for a week to seniors who previously ate at senior centers. This week, those seniors have transitioned into Meals on Wheels, receiving weekly deliveries of seven-day batches of frozen meals, or into the 311 meal delivery program.
To tick through the expanded delivery list, the county is relying on a fleet of five, 16-foot-long refrigerated vehicles. Many have had to take turns behind the wheel.
“We had our staff, everybody in our department was all-hands-on-deck delivering meals, no matter whether they are social workers, administrators. Everybody is on board,” said Lucia Davis-Raiford, director of Miami-Dade’s Community Action and Human Services Department. “It all just made us realize how flexible and creative you have to be in these circumstances.”
Besides the 21 county-run senior centers, over 50 additional centers — operated by local municipalities or nonprofits and collectively serving around 10,000 seniors — have also shuttered, and are also transitioning to meal delivery services.
Holder says the county is willing and ready to shore up those centers’ delivery operations when needs arise.
“For example, one organization said, ‘We have two drivers that are sick. Could we get two drivers from the county?’ We said, ‘Not only will we give you two drivers, we will also give you our own refrigerated vehicle until you get your vehicle that may have been compromised dealt with.’”
Meal delivery to the county’s elderly residents has always been, as Davis-Raiford explains, “a very personal service to people.”
But although drivers in earlier times might have been able to place meals directly on residents’ kitchen counters, COVID-19 mandates that new sanitation and social distancing guidelines be followed every time a delivery is made.
Drivers now wear personal protective equipment in the form of masks and gloves (DeliverLean’s drivers are similarly outfitted).
To receive the deliveries, some residents are placing a chair on their porch. County drivers either drop the meals off on the chair or, if there isn’t one, on a stand that they carry around in their vehicles. They then ring the bell, step back, and let residents collect the meals, visually acknowledging that the food has been received instead of having folks sign for them, which had been the case before.
For those new to meal delivery — especially for those who’ve signed up through the new 311 emergency program — the county makes sure to explain in detail how drop-offs take place.
“Especially now that we are delivering meals to individuals who are not connected to our program who may not know our staff and may not be connected with DeliverLean, we are also communicating with them so they know not to be freaked out if someone shows up at your doorstep wearing a mask,” said Holder. “We’re giving them a heads-up that this is happening.”
During his rounds in downtown Miami on Wednesday, Kouzenkov’s full-body protective gear occasionally drew quizzical glances from folks passing by.
“When people see me out on the street or in apartment buildings delivering bags of meals they ask me if I’m delivering medicine,” he said. “And I say, no this is food. But I feel … it’s just as important as medicine.”
Davis-Raiford says a process is being developed to make meal deliveries become opportunities to not just drop off food, but also conduct wellness checks as the new normal imposed by COVID-19 sets in.
“I think it’s very predictable that this crisis is going to be fairly impacting, especially when you isolate people who can’t get around,” she said. “What we want is to have the ability to connect in some way, and not just provide meals.”
The county’s Community Action and Human Services Department is also making broader use of “telephone reassurance,” multiplying calls to vulnerable seniors to conduct more informal check-ins.
“We have more people picking up the phone now and calling our clients and just asking, ‘How is your day?’ ” Holder said.
It’s a behavior she believes everyone can model inside their own communities.
“I’m encouraging everyone if you have a neighbor who is a senior or elderly, check in on that person,” she said. “You may not be able to knock on their door and go into their apartments, but we do encourage you to find a way to be responsible for each other.”