The Giving Spirit: Following Meals On Wheels Freezer Malfunction, NECI Pitches In To Restock

Nov 17, 2017

When the Twin Valley Senior Center's freezer died, nearly 400 "Meals on Wheels" had to be tossed. But Director Rita Copeland was determined not to let her homebound clients miss a meal.

The Twin Valley Senior Center in East Montpelier is a busy place. There are exercise classes, art lessons, singalongs and lunch is served three days a week.

But not everyone can make it to the senior center for food and companionship. For about 35 central Vermonters who are homebound, the center brings meals to them.

Some of those Meals on Wheels are hot, to be eaten right away. And some are frozen so they can be saved for non-delivery days, including weekends and holidays. Executive Director Rita Copeland says she’s been stocking up for weeks for the extra holiday demand.

"On the holidays we get hit double," she says. "And that’s been my deepest concern."

In the aftermath of the recent windstorm, the center’s freezer stopped running.

"We think it was a power surge, but there’s no way you can guarantee that," says Copeland. "... I mean, who’s to say? Mother Nature."

This damaged freezer circuit board has been replaced. The repair cost the center $526, which Executive Director Rita Copeland is trying to recoup through insurance.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Whatever happened, it fried the freezer’s main circuit board and knocked out the center’s television to boot.

"I knew that there was no way we could replace the quantity of the meals that we needed to get through the holidays and all that," she says. "Not in that time."

Copeland adds it’s not just the amount of meals that were lost, but the variety. The discarded frozen meals included beef stew, shepherd's pie, quiche, macaroni and cheese; the list goes on.

So Copeland started reaching out, and the community responded. Several other area senior centers shared meals from their own freezers. Businesses chipped in, as well as individuals and other nonprofits. One 98-year-old who spends time at the senior center donated $100 dollars so Copeland could go grocery shopping to meet the immediate need.

The Twin Valley Senior center is well on its way to restocking its freezer, now that it has been repaired.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

But they were still hundreds of meals short with Thanksgiving right around the corner. And that’s when Copeland decided to give the New England Culinary Institute a call. And it turns out NECI teaching chef Mike Dewes had some insight into what needed to be done.

"Before moving to Vermont I was the food and farm director for a senior services nonprofit in Illinois," Dewes explains. "So, it felt very familiar."

Chef Mike, as his students call him, checked his inventory and rounded up some volunteers, like second-year student Tyler Comeau, from St. Albans.

NECI student Tyler Comeau (left) and Chef Mike Dewes were among the volunteers who put together 420 entrees for the Twin Valley Senior Center.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"It took probably a couple days to prep all the meals out, but it wasn’t too bad," says Comeau. "We usually have … a lot of hands on deck. So, it was fun. I learned a lot of techniques and stuff I never did before."

When all the work was done, they ended up with 420 entrees.

NECI volunteers prepared around 140 portions each of three separate entrees.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"We made ham and beans from, actually, some locally sourced ham here, beef stew, and then we did an Italian sausage pasta with sausage that we made here at the school," says Chef Mike.

Back at the senior center’s kitchen, volunteers will portion out those entrees and round out the meals with vegetables, including three cases of canned veggies donated from Enough Ministries, in Barre.

 "It’s all coming together," says Copeland. "It’s just awesome."