- T.L. Petersen
- The Observer
For a man who spent years as a rural mail carrier, the back roads and byways of north La Grande are easy to navigate.
But taking care not to upset the cups of soup this day, or dump any of the salads with too quick a corner Â— those keep the speeds slow.
For a bit more than an hour, Glen and Verla Henry work like a well-oiled machine, moving from house to house and taking two meal plates and a cup of soup to each of the 15 Meals on Wheels clients they are visiting today.
It's their twice-a-week routine.
This particular Wednesday, like every Monday and Wednesday, the Henrys, now 86 and 84, fill the back of their car with meals and deliver them to the people on their route. It's one of four Meals on Wheels routes in and around La Grande.
The couple, who have been delivering Meals on Wheels for more than a dozen years, are just two of the approximately 31 volunteer drivers working with the Union County Senior Center in La Grande to be sure those who are shut in by physical disabilities have a chance to eat a nutritious, balanced meal every day.
For the Henrys and other volunteers, their "day" begins before 11 a.m.
The Henrys arrive early. They start dishing up the meals as the center's cooking staff set out all the lists Â— how many diabetic meals are needed, how many cartons of milk have been requested for clients and how many meals are going to each route.
Clients call in their orders for each week Â— not food, but what days they want meals, how much milk, and by Friday, whether or not they want frozen meals to last through the weekends.
Kate Strauer, dietary manager at the center, interrupts the meal preparation.
She turns away briefly to check on the turkeys in the oven, cooking for the next day's lunch.
Strauer turns back to pick up conversations left to dangle mid-stream.
"All our meals are sort of diabetic," she says, since the senior center kitchens don't use salt in food preparation, and there's always a low- or no-sugar dessert available.
Some clients have requested a low sodium meal option. But so far, other than the no-salt, that isn't separately available. And the kitchen already works to make its meals low-fat.
"The majority of meals are what we call home-style. We make nearly everything from scratch," she explains.
What is going out to the Meals on Wheels this day is what will soon be served to those stopping by for lunch at the senior center.
Strauer oversees meals for an average of about 200 people each day. The number varies a bit because the Meals on Wheels clients aren't always the same, and it is impossible to predict the exact number of noon-time diners at the center.
Working on one side of a long counter, Verla Henry explains that while a soup day is always challenging for deliveries, the meal variety is great.
"The other day we had elk steak," she explains.
While there are businesses and groups who some days "sponsor" a certain menu, other days, such as the elk steak days, the main course comes from wildlife carcasses taken from poachers. The poacher generally has to have the meat processed as part of the fines, Strauer adds.
At the end of the counter, Glen Henry carefully taps the plastic lids on the Meals on Wheels trays. Clear lids mean what's inside is cold, such as salads and desserts. Orangish-brown lids cover meals that are best served hot.
Henry is careful with the lids, since some time ago a decision was make to use hard plastic trays and lids so that they could be recycled.
Later, when he's delivering the meals, he will pick up and return used trays and lids to the senior center.
While Meals on Wheels preparation seems to overwhelm the center's kitchen, it is just another day.
On Tuesdays, the center kitchen prepares and transports a luncheon meal to seniors in Union and Cove. Thursdays it is Elgin's turn, and Fridays meals are transported to North Powder.
While the last-minute food prep is handled at the meal site locations, the planning, cooking and baking are all done in La Grande.
"Not everybody takes the frozen," Verla Henry notes.
"The volunteers check with their people about Thursday," Strauer explains.
The senior center kitchen also prepares a "sit-down" dinner on Saturdays that is served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Verla and Glen Henry are ready to leave for their route shortly after 11 a.m.
There are warmer bags filling the back of their car, a tray of individual milk cartons in the front, and Verla in the back seat with lists to be checked off for meals delivered, trays picked up and any notes that need to be delivered back to the kitchen and senior center.
Glen explains after the first stop that he and Verla started serving meals with their church years ago, when different churches provided servers.
As their church had trouble finding enough people to help with the serving at the center Â…Verla picks up the story. "A friend asked us to fill-in one winter while they were gone somewhere."
Thus are new volunteer drivers found.
"We've covered all the routes but one," Glen adds.
They haven't done the longest mileage route, nearly 20 miles, that delivers meals around the edges of La Grande.
"Truth is," Glen says, "I look forward to when I do the route. It's a change of pace."
There's little time to stop and visit with those getting the meals, but Verla and Glen know each person. Glen takes the trays to the door, knocks, enters and sets the trays down, takes the used trays and brings them back to the car.
At one stop, it takes a few seconds longer.
The client, he explains, is blind and nearly deaf. She wanted him to change the channel on her TV, and she had a remote Glen wasn't familiar with.
They don't talk about it much, but a key part of their work is to make sure every client is OK. Once, a client's door was locked. Glen saw she had fallen inside the house and he was able to get in a back door and call for help Â— before continuing his Meals on Wheels route.
If no one answers a door or his call inside, he lets Verla know and a note is made for Strauer, who has every client's emergency contact person's name and number.
The Henrys are happy their health has held up so far and they can still volunteer for Meals on Wheels. She has had four operations, but nothing critical, Verla says. Still, she can't climb stairs very well and moves too slowly to make the deliveries to the front doors herself.
Both Henrys graduated from Wallowa High School, but after marrying they moved to Oklahoma, returning to La Grande in 1952. They've raised five children, and note that one of their meal clients is actually an in-law.
Glen pops back into the car.
"This is the last one," he says, pulling ahead another block.
"They count on us for help," Glen explains, noting how important his few seconds with the clients can be.
Verla, handing the last trays of the day to Glen, takes an appreciative sniff of the food aroma. "They're just good cooks there (at the center).''