Nova Scotia

Meals on Wheels sees 'huge drop' in volunteers during COVID-19 outbreak

The COVID-19 outbreak is taking a toll on the long-standing charity as it's lost 40 per cent of its volunteers.

'You might be their only visitor:' volunteer says clients rely on the charity for food and social contact

To maintain social distancing, Murray Creed is getting a phone call to pick up his meal on his doorstep instead of it being handed to him. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Murray Creed, 93, is doing everything he can to be safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He's cooped up inside his Halifax home, not letting a soul inside. He wipes down his mailbox and door handle with a disinfectant to keep the virus at bay.

And he's relying on Meals on Wheels, a charity that's been serving mostly senior clients for 50 years in Halifax. The group is still hitting the road amid the outbreak that's seen daily increases in infection cases in Nova Scotia this week. As of Wednesday, there were 68 confirmed cases

Now the pandemic is taking a toll on the non-profit group, causing a "huge drop" in its volunteer ranks, said Risa Lee, the coordinator of the service in Halifax. Forty per cent of its volunteers have dropped out because of issues including recent travel, family, or employer concerns about being outside during the outbreak, she said. 

"I understand why they wouldn't feel they should do it because of their own and other people's health," said Creed, during an interview from his doorstep. The fact that the "wonderful service" is soldiering on, "I applaud them for it," he said.

A sign indicating Carl Courneya's car is on a Meals on Wheels run. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Pandemic safety precautions have been implemented at Meals on Wheels. There's extra sanitizing, and stricter food handling controls. But those safety precautions have also eliminated the special touch that's made Meals on Wheels a beloved service. 

Normally, the meal is handed to the client by the volunteer driver, and that usually means a lingering, cheery chat. But these days, Carl Courneya, a volunteer and Meals on Wheels board member, is phoning clients to let them know their packaged meal is on their doorstep.

"The fun part is missing now, the interaction with the clients is gone, it's so incredibly difficult," Courneya said. "It might be the only opportunity to speak to someone during the day when we deliver."

Retiree Carl Courneya volunteers his time with several groups. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

As he delivered frittata, roast potatoes, beef and vegetable soup and cake to his 13 clients on Wednesday, Courneya said some may not have family close by, while others are unable to leave the house.

"You might be their only visitor," he said. 

Since the call went out on social media for volunteers last week, about a dozen people have come forward, including people in their 20s, families, a professor, teachers and military members. 

But some offers have already been rescinded due to work commitments and concerns from employers.

About 35 to 40 new recruits are needed. They can expect to receive a tax receipt to help cover some of their driving costs.

In the meantime, the charity is getting by as "the volunteer situation is not a deal breaker at his moment," said Lee.

Risa Lee is the co-ordinator of Halifax Meals on Wheels. (Lance Lee)

She's considering changes such as having one person make delivery runs instead of travelling in pairs, and doubling up on routes. 

Across Nova Scotia there are about 30 branches of Meals on Wheels. The Halifax group is asking its 150 clients to have a back-up plan in case its volunteer ranks get too low.

The service only stopped once this past year after a winter storm. It even operated in the aftermath of hurricane Dorian, Lee said.

Volunteer Geoff Atkinson says the service is "vital."

"Most of our clients are quite vulnerable," he said. When his parents were alive and living in Ontario, he was comforted knowing there was a Meals on Wheels service in their community.

"If I can do that for another family, I'm only too happy to do it," said Atkinson.

Geoff Atkinson is a volunteer and board member at Halifax Meals on Wheels. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

For Courneya, his payment is the perk he gets during his deliveries — something he's been missing lately.

"They light up, we see the big smile," he said.

He and Murray Creed are content to simply wave to each other, as Creed gratefully picks up his packaged meal from his doorstep.

"It's one of the bright spots of our day, to come to the door and we find out how they're doing as well," said Creed. 


Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at