Russ Phillips, right, Cindy DiBiase, center, and Audra Keenan, left, distribute meals to senior citizens in the Scarborough High School parking lot on Tuesday. The meal distribution – a collaboration between Scarborough Community Services and the Southern Maine Agency on Aging – is an effort to get meals to seniors because the weekly in-person meal cannot be held due to the pandemic. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

SCARBOROUGH — The vehicles rolled by in a steady stream, high-end models and compact economy cars, each collecting packages containing three prepared meals.

Butternut squash ravioli. Sweet and sour meatballs. New England clam chowder. And a mini bundt cake donated by a local retailer. All neatly stacked in a white plastic bag. A volunteer placed the packages in the back seat or trunk. Some drivers picked up additional meals for family members or friends.

All told, 84 older residents of Cumberland and York counties took advantage of a no-contact, meals-to-go distribution one morning last week in the parking lot at Scarborough High School. The event was staffed by Scarborough’s Community Services Department and catered by the Southern Maine Agency on Aging.

“I’ve been telling everyone about this,” said Marcia Owens, 76, of Gorham, wearing a mask as she waited in her car. “I have a lot of medical conditions, so I’ve been on lockdown since March. My daughter gets groceries for me, but everybody needs all the help they can get right now.”

Meals-to-go distributions are just one of the ways the Agency on Aging has continued to address the growing and changing nutrition needs of isolated older Mainers during the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many vulnerable seniors and disabled adults to stay home and protect their health.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began more than four months ago, the agency has doubled the volume of its nutrition programs, including home-delivered Meals on Wheels, said Renee Longarini, nutrition director.

Before the pandemic, the agency provided 2,800 meals to 750-800 clients per week. Now it provides 5,000-6,000 meals to 1,100 clients per week. That includes meals-to-go distributions that have replaced weekly congregate senior lunch programs served at more than a dozen community centers from Eliot to Yarmouth.

Audra Keenan, left, and Cindy DiBiase, both with Scarborough Community Services, talk with a man before handing him a bag containing three meals at the Scarborough High School parking lot on Tuesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“When we had to suspend our congregate meals due to COVID, we knew we needed to come up with another way to get the nutrition to those in need,” Longarini said. “Our meals-to-go events have helped us to do that.”

The agency has been able to adapt and expand its meal programs because it received $990,000 in federal funding as part of the pandemic response, in addition to $788,000 in federal and state funding already in its budget.

Eligibility guidelines for nutrition programs also have been expanded, Longarini said. Before the pandemic, seniors and disabled adults were eligible if they were primarily homebound and had difficulty preparing meals. Now clients are eligible if they are mostly homebound as a result of social isolation.

As always, people are asked to pay what they can afford. At the meals-to-go distribution last Tuesday, the meals were available for free or reduced cost to clients on fixed incomes, but many gladly gave the suggested $10 donation.

Susan Graham talks with Audra Keenan, left, while Russ Phillips places bags of meals in the back of Graham’s car at the Scarborough High School parking lot on Tuesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I think it’s fabulous,” said Toni MacDiarmid, 76, of Scarborough. “We seniors who’ve been stuck in our houses since March really appreciate it.”

MacDiarmid said she goes to the supermarket regularly, but she participated in the meal distribution because she wanted to show support for the program and make sure it’s there for other seniors who might be less able to get their own groceries.

Many of the seniors who picked up meals on Tuesday shared MacDairmid’s sentiments, including one woman who also paid for the person in the car behind her as a way of “paying it forward.”

Still, many seniors remain unaware of the agency’s meal programs, especially as they have expanded during the pandemic. Many don’t think they are eligible, said Kate Putnam, agency spokeswoman.

“When it comes to older Mainers, they are the last people to ask for help and the first people to offer to help,” Putnam said. “There is still funding available to enroll additional older adults. These meals are available for folks throughout York and Cumberland counties who have been impacted by COVID-19. ”

Audra Keenan, Russ Phillips and Cindy DiBiase, left to right, put meals into bags prior to distributing them to seniors in Scarborough on Tuesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In addition to federal and state funding, the agency has raised nearly $280,000 to support Meals on Wheels through grants and donations from individuals, businesses, civic groups and private foundations such as the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, Putnam said.

The agency also has received help from a battalion of 280 volunteers who have helped to deliver meals during the pandemic. One of them is Russ Phillips, a marketing manager for Martin’s Point Health Care, which previously hosted weekly senior lunches in a community room at its facility on Route 1 in Scarborough.

Phillips said he was happy to help with the meals-to-go distribution last Tuesday, not only because of the necessary nutrition it provided, but also because of the concern it showed for others during a difficult time.

“We need a lot of that right now,” Phillips said.

Some of the seniors picking up meals usually attend the weekly lunches at Martin’s Point, which are funded by the Agency on Aging and staffed by Scarborough’s Community Services Department.

“It’s really nice to see the regulars here today,” said Audra Keenan, intergenerational program manager for the town department.

The Agency on Aging has held similar meals-to-go distributions in Kennebunkport. Two more are already scheduled at Scarborough High School on Aug. 4 and 18. Organizers are planning to hold additional distribution events in other areas of southern Maine that will be announced as they are scheduled.

Visit the agency’s website at smaaa.org or call 396-6500 to sign up for a meals-to-go distribution and to learn more about other programs, including Meals on Wheels.

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