Setting the Table—and the Standard

By: Helen Mitternight

Imagine that you are not able to go out and buy groceries whenever you want to—or visit a restaurant with a friend—because you are homebound due to illness or injury. Now, imagine that you are unfortunately by yourself, without someone there to do the food shopping on your behalf. How thankful would you be to discover a friendly face at your door, bringing you nourishing meals to eat? That’s the premise of the East Cooper organization Meals on Wheels.

Being homebound is the only necessary stipulation to sign up for the service—you don’t have to be elderly or impoverished; you just have to be unable to leave home. “We serve daily meals: every day of the week, Mondays through Fridays, and on Fridays, we deliver meals for the weekend,” said Jenny Ladd, who serves as business and operations manager for the organization. “We do this regardless of age or income.

If you are homebound and can’t prepare a meal because of a physical or mental disability or even something as simple as recovering from surgery, we’re there,” she added. The nonprofit covers Mount Pleasant, Sullivan’s Island, Daniel Island, Isle of Palms and parts of Wando and Cainhoy. MOW serves more than 3,000 meals a week and 158,000 a year. Unlike the chapter of the organization covering the Charleston Peninsula, East Cooper is funded privately, which, Ladd said, takes away the necessity to screen by age or income, as is required by federally funded affiliates.

Dinners are purchased by the organization from the Lowcountry Food Bank, where a local chef creates the food and ensures it arrives fully prepared. Food also is purchased from Senior Catering in St. Stephen, South Carolina. “Our volunteers pack them in little trays. They look like little TV dinners,” Ladd said, adding that the group has only seven staffers, but 450 busy and dedicated volunteers.

In addition to dinners, East Cooper distributes about 65 or 70 bags every week containing the most important meal of the day—shelf-stable items such as fruit cups, raisins, cereal and juice boxes. As Ladd pointed out, “If you can’t go to the store to get stuff to prepare meals in general, you’re probably not eating breakfast, either.” Due to sheer volume, East Cooper Meals on Wheels does not offer individualized meals to accommodate special diets, though Ladd pointed out all the meals are diabetic friendly and meet the health standards for seniors set by the National Institutes of Health, including proteins, fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Ladd added that volunteers do often interview people who sign up to find out about their allergies and will point out ingredients in meals that the recipient can’t eat.

Another part of that initial interview is to ask about evacuation plans, something essential in storm-prone South Carolina. Even in the midst of a hurricane, the organization does all it can to ensure people have food to eat. “This last hurricane was over Labor Day weekend,” Ladd recalled. “We were closed on Labor Day and had handed out extra meals for the holiday. But when we found out about the mandatory evacuation, we all came into the office, and we called every recipient. A lot of them don’t pay attention to a weather event, so we had to ask them, ‘Are you going to stay or go?’

We had four or five volunteers who were able to come in, and they did all 21 routes on their own. We took the people who were staying four or five days’ worth of food at once. Some of these recipients will never leave the house, and you can’t force them. Most of our recipients have family members who do make arrangements for them to leave, but about a third of them aren’t going anywhere or don’t have anyone. If they do want to leave— but none did during Dorian—we find a way to get them to a shelter. If they don’t, after the storm passes, we let emergency responders know to go and check on them,” she explained.

Ladd reported her days to be full of heartwarming stories from volunteers who are a lifeline for the people they visit. It’s a safety check; volunteers sometimes find recipients who have fallen and lain there for hours until Meals on Wheels showed up. Ladd also recalled one woman who sank into depression after her husband died—then the volunteer gradually coaxed her into eating again.

Another elderly man, a gunshot victim, couldn’t descend the steep stairs from where he lived. After the volunteer found out the man hadn’t been outside in months, he hoisted a chair onto the tiny upstairs porch and gave him a way to enjoy the fresh air. “You would think we’d given him a million dollars,” Ladd shared. “Now he’s out there all the time, and he says hello to everyone.”

She admitted it is stories like this that keep her at the organization. “This population is really forgotten,” she said. “These people are hidden in their homes, and they don’t ever have somebody who comes to visit them. If you go on a route, you probably get more out of it then they do. Sometimes, you might be the only person they see all day. It’s so heartwarming and fulfilling to know you have helped someone have a better day.” The organization also accepts donations at its website,