By early December, Jacquelyn Barnes was getting desperate.
She and her husband, Dexter, both disabled, live in an area no longer served by a bus and have little money left for food after paying for rent and medicine on their low fixed incomes.
“We barely had enough to survive,” the retired DeKalb County school cafeteria worker said.
To help get food to their southwest Atlanta apartment, Barnes turned to Meals on Wheels Atlanta (MOWA), a nonprofit organization that has supported vulnerable seniors since it was founded as a small soup kitchen in 1965.
Last year, MOWA delivered more than 600,000 meals to food insecure seniors across the city of Atlanta. That was up by at least 100,000 meals from 2019, due primarily to the global pandemic, MOWA says.
Still, as of mid-January, nearly 400 seniors remained on what the organization calls its “Can’t Wait” list for ongoing meal delivery service.
But hope is at the end of a sledgehammer.
In February, MOWA’s outdated kitchen — designed to serve 200,000 meals a year — will be demolished. More than 18,000 square feet in the organization’s building near I-75 at Northside Drive will be transformed, including an ultramodern commercial kitchen, allowing meal production to be tripled.
Also planned are a gourmet demo kitchen for cooking classes, an organic garden and community event space in a project that is a community collaboration of designers, architects, builders, chefs, gardeners and others.
MOWA plans a variety of fundraisers to complete the build and asks the community to “Pitch in for Our Kitchen” by purchasing items from a wish list on its website.
The goal is to eliminate that “Can’t Wait” list, said Hillary Baker, MOWA’s chief marketing officer. “Nobody should be waiting for food,” Baker said.
Several weeks after she applied for help, Barnes and her husband were moved off the waiting list and added to a route sheet. Breakfast items and freshly prepared and then frozen meals are delivered regularly to the couple.
“I got really lucky … and I definitely like the service. I worked in a cafeteria, so I know quality,” said Barnes, who’s particularly a fan of the meatloaf and chicken and rice meals she receives.
No surprise there.
MOWA’s executive chef is Robert Gerstenecker, former executive chef at Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta. Gerstenecker and a registered dietitian nutritionist design meals to meet most clients’ dietary restrictions.
“Everything is proportioned. Everything is nicely sealed,” Barnes said. “This is remarkable and a blessing to me. I love it.”
Before the pandemic, MOWA volunteers delivered food to seniors five days a week. Now, six meals are delivered weekly on Saturdays.
The organization’s largest fundraiser, “A Meal to Remember,” which in 2019 brought in $825,000, had to be cancelled.
As the going got tough, MOWA got creative. Gerstenecker and his staff have created gourmet holiday dinners for eight to help raise funds and developed a line of gourmet snacks called “Purposeful Foods” that are sold on MOWA’s website.
In September, the organization held a drive-in theater event in Sandy Springs called “Reelz On Wheels.”
In the meantime, MOWA is getting a lot of love from local celebrities. Its website features Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, rapper Lil Jon, actor Ed Helms (“The Office” and “The Hangover”) and others making pitches for MOWA.
During the holiday season, rapper and singer/songwriter André 3000 shared his family’s “Quick Lil’ Apple Pie” recipe on Instagram in support of MOWA’S Pass It Down campaign. The dish has four ingredients: applesauce, canned biscuits, butter and an optional pinch of salt.
“COVID-19 was devastating for nonprofits but for Meals on Wheels, the community has really stepped up to support its efforts, so much so that the new kitchen project can be a reality,” Baker said.
Going the extra mile
MOWA’s volunteer drivers are the final loop in the chain of getting food to seniors, providing the only human interaction some seniors regularly receive.
Kevin Cerchiai, a sound technician who worked on Marvel Studio’s upcoming “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” miniseries and several episodes of “The Walking Dead,” started driving for MOWA after the pandemic hit.
His help soon went beyond delivering food to the six homebound seniors on his route in the Bankhead community. The Westside resident rallied his friends to help him purchase a new refrigerator for one of those seniors. They took extra holiday food to everyone on the route and at Christmas bought three bikes for a grandfather who’s raising three grandsons.
Cerchiai, a recent transplant from Miami, said driving for MOWA — often accompanied by family members or friends — has been a great way to get to know Atlanta and serve the community.
“All of my friends are on the same level with this. We don’t do this stuff to make us feel good. We do it to make the other people feel good,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be able to help people out and their excitement is good enough for us.”
Meals on Wheels Atlanta
Donate — Support programs including meal delivery, food pantry, pet food and home repair. $9 a day provides a senior in need with breakfast, dinner and pet food.
Stock the new kitchen — Purchase an item from the wish list on MOWA’s website.
Volunteer — Deliver meals. Prepare shelf-stable meal options and stock food pantry. Decorate food delivery boxes.
Contact — Visit mowatl.org or 404-351-3889. Find it on Instagram and Facebook
Other home-delivered meal programs for seniors
■ DeKalb County — Visit dekalbcountyga.gov/senior-services/office-senior-affairs or call 770-322-2950.
■ Cobb County — Visit cobbcounty.org/public-services/senior-services/services-and-resources. Call 770-528-5364 for information about receiving meals. For information about volunteering, call 770-528-1447.
■ Fulton County — Visit fultoncountyga.gov/services/senior-services/home-delivered-meals or call 404-613-6000.
■ Gwinnett County — Visit gwinnettseniorservices.com or call 678-377-4150.