By Mischa Webley, NECN Staff Writer
They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but at the Meals on Wheels Center on NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, lunches are dished out, free of charge, hundreds of times a day. What’s the catch? There isn’t one. Anyone over 60, regardless of income level, can access a meal, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
In February, Meals on Wheels (MOW) will celebrate fifty years of providing both on-site meals and a citywide delivery network that brings meals to seniors in their homes.. What began as the brainchild of three women in the 1960’s looking to make a difference in the lives of seniors in Southeast has spawned a huge operation in the Portland area, serving Multnomah, Washington and Clark County.
The impact is big, and it’s more than just filling stomachs. “For some people,” says David Lomax, head of operations at the MLK Center, “it’s not the meal. It’s the community. We give people a place to go where they can interact with their peers and be a part of their community.”
Many delivery drivers find this out the first time they bring a meal to someone’s home. Often, a quick drop-off turns into an invitation to stay, which turns into sharing a meal with a perfect stranger and learning their life story. For our elders, who are increasingly isolated in our ever-busier culture, this opportunity to spend time with others is invaluable.
While the community surrounding the MLK Center has changed a lot in the past fifty years, much of what makes MOW special is how little it has. Every day of the year, about 60-65 people come in like clockwork for a meal. “You don’t necessarily see the older people in your neighborhood,” says Julie PIper Finley, Director of Marketing and Communications for MOW. “They’re often an overlooked part of the community. But they are there, and they’re a hugely important part of our society and they make our neighborhoods richer. And Meals on Wheels helps keep people in the community, thriving and contributing.”
A partnership with Urban League provides activities for seniors, meaning a visit to MOW can provide enough food and activity for an entire day. On a Tuesday at lunchtime it’s bustling, with small tables crowded by elders, chatting about the day’s news and the latest gossip. Everyone appears to know each other, and there’s a refreshing amount of camaraderie in the room. Patrons, volunteers, delivery drivers and staff act as one big family. In a way, that’s exactly what they are.
MOW relies on a huge team of volunteers and charitable gifts to do what they do, and they are in constant need of more generous spirits to give their time serving and delivering food. If you’re interested in volunteering with Meals on Wheels, you can visit them at www.mowp.org, or you can just walk into the MLK Center and say hi.