Cooks from kitchens shuttered by pandemic keep Meals on Wheels rolling in Edmonton

Subsidized dishes delivered to clients of Edmonton's Meals on Wheels are now being prepared by some of the city's most celebrated chefs.

'The volunteer support has been tremendous'

Dave Manna, the owner of restaurants Rosso Pizzeria and Bianco, is one of the local executive chefs lending his talents to Meals on Wheels during the pandemic. (Meals on Wheels)

Subsidized dishes delivered to clients of Edmonton's Meals on Wheels are now being prepared by some of the city's most celebrated chefs.

As the pandemic leaves many non-profit organizations short-staffed and struggling, Meals on Wheels has expanded, bolstered by staff from professional kitchens that have been shuttered, and a new crew of volunteer drivers.

From Rosso and Bianco to Craft Beer Market and O2's, kitchen crews and local chefs — including Mary Bailey of The Tomato magazine — have been keeping busy in the charity's volunteer kitchen.

"It's an unprecedented time for the hospitality industry," said Charles Rothman, the agency's communications manager.

"We are very fortunate to have members of the industry come and support us. The volunteer support has been tremendous."

'We don't stop'

Demand for Meals on Wheels in Edmonton increased by 40 per cent last month, just as concerns over sanitization and physical distancing forced the agency to alter almost every aspect of its operations.

The kitchen schedule went from eight-hour shifts Monday through Friday to cooking virtually around the clock, Rothman said.

Meals on Wheels was able to expand its operations and upgrade its kitchen thanks to funds from the Edmonton Community Foundation and the Muttart Foundation, he said.

Joseph Vuong, a chef with Craft Beer Market in Edmonton, has been volunteering with Meals on Wheels during the pandemic. (Meals on Wheels)

The non-profit provides home-delivered meals and grocery services to hundreds of Edmontonians. It has operated in the city for five decades but the pandemic brought unprecedented pressure.

"We're an essential service so we don't stop," Rothman said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. 

The sudden spike in clients was "definitely a quick increase." Strong community support allowed it to get past that hurdle, he said.

"The end result hasn't changed," he said. "We're still managing to feed all of our clients and have some form of social contact, but definitely the process in which we get there has changed dramatically — whether we're talking sanitizing touch-points, the bagging of our meals or no-contact delivery." 

Rothman, a restaurateur and executive chef, is himself one of the new recruits. When the pandemic hit, he was laid off from his job as regional manager and executive chef at Food Service Solutions. 

He asked his wife, a longtime co-ordinator with Meals on Wheels, if he could take on a larger role in the organization.

"I've kind of been on the sidelines for quite a while and you know it was like, 'Put me in, coach.

"At the end of the day, they're a food service company and I come out of that industry ... it's become my COVID career." 

    Rothman said he feels good about being able to help the community at a time when so many people are struggling.

      And while donations and new recruits are always welcome, he wants Edmontonians to know the drivers and cooks at Meals and Wheels are more prepared than ever to serve. 

      "Our volunteer situation is definitely strong," he said.

      "We're building a reserve, an emergency list right now, and oddly enough with the ability of ramping up production and changing our production model, as well as the support from the community, we actually have the ability to take on more. 

      "It takes a village and we appreciate all the support from the community."

      Ron Pettapiece is one of the community volunteers helping keep Meals on Wheels on the road during the pandemic. (Meals on Wheels)


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