Miami-Dade delivers seniors 40,000 meals daily in COVID crisis. How long can it last?

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When a driver pulled up to an apartment complex near Cutler Bay on a recent Friday morning, a microwaveable dinner of chicken parmigiana and mixed vegetables helped put Miami-Dade County closer to a milestone: 20 million free meals delivered to senior residents under the county’s first emergency COVID-19 program.

County statistics show the program is on track to deliver its 20 millionth meal sometime in February, after crossing the 18,000,000 mark on Jan. 1. About 47,000 people receive the meals, an extension of an emergency program launched in March to encourage the county’s most vulnerable residents to stay home during the COVID pandemic.

The cost: $165 million and counting, covered by a mix of federal dollars allocated for the coronavirus crisis.

Now Miami-Dade is weighing how to continue the emergency program as the federal funds behind it become less certain but the COVID-19 threat remains.

Miami-Dade relies on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fund most of the costs, with dwindling CARES Act dollars covering the rest. County commissioners will have a chance to extend the program when they meet Wednesday, their first full session of 2021.

COVID BOOSTED FUNDING FOR SENIOR MEALS

Advocates for senior meals say the coronavirus crisis magnified an existing weak point in the nation’s system for keeping elderly Americans fed and comfortable at home.

“There was enormous unmet need prior to the pandemic, where seniors were struggling with hunger and isolation,” said Katie Jantzi, director of government affairs for Meals on Wheels America.

Emergency funding during COVID allowed Meals on Wheels and other providers to expand deliveries, leaving programs to consider what happens when those federal dollars revert back to normal levels.

The county’s delivery program got an indirect promotion on President-elect Joe Biden’s Twitter feed Friday, which posted a video conversation Biden had the day before with Pilar Guzman Zavala, an owner of Half Moon Empanadas, one of the companies delivering meals for Miami-Dade.

The segment showed Zavala telling Biden about how her business survived in 2020 with take-out orders and “delivering meals for seniors. We learned about logistics, packaging and nutrition.”

Zavala, a Biden supporter who participated in campaign business events last fall, said the county contract helped keep her small operation alive in 2020, when empanada stands at Miami International Airport and elsewhere closed.

Nutritional standards didn’t allow the company to provide empanadas, so Half Moon converted to a meal-making operation while continuing to sell empanadas online and at the few remaining retail locations.

“The picadillo we made for the empanadas, that’s the picadillo they get with yellow rice and two vegetables,” Zavala said. The seniors also get items not made with empanada components, including chicken fajitas and turkey sandwiches.

Miami-Dade launched its senior meals program in the week after then-Mayor Carlos Gimenez declared a state of emergency over a virus that at that point had been linked to a single confirmed COVID-19 case in the Miami area.

That March 12 order was followed by the emergency closure of senior centers countywide, including the lunch rooms — or comedores — that provided hot meals daily to tens of thousands of older residents that relied on the locations for nutrition.

Gimenez ordered the county’s social-services arm to create a meal delivery operation from scratch, as senior centers also rushed to shift their food programs from in-house to in-home. On March 16, county-contracted drivers dropped off 1,280 meals for a cost of $14,000. A month later, daily deliveries ballooned to 85,000 and a monthly cost approaching $20 million.

“It was wartime conditions,” said Scott Harris, chief executive of the county’s main delivery firm, DeliverLean.

Founded as a gourmet-meal delivery business in Hollywood, the company found a niche in making grab-and-go meals for airport outlets and grocery stores and delivering them for healthcare providers tending to homebound patients.

The company also provides meals for county workers during hurricanes and other emergencies, and Miami-Dade tapped DeliverLean to launch the senior meals effort, which now includes seven delivery providers, according to a summary of the emergency contract by the county’s Inspector General.

Harris recalled the spring launch as a daily logistical crisis, with food containers suddenly scarce as restaurants shifted to delivery operations. Suppliers bracing for economic retreat slowed production, upending DeliverLean’s purchasing operations. “Ice packs were impossible to get. Because everybody ran out of them,” Harris said. “We bought machines to make our own ice packs.”

The Little Havana Activities and Nutrition centers have been delivering meals since March, dropping off about 2,800 a day, said operations director Betty Ruano-Bond. She said some recipients are asking about reopening the senior centers as vaccinations become more widespread. “The biggest complaint we hear from them is isolation,” she said.

FEMA AND CARES KEY TO MIAMI-DADE SENIOR MEALS BUDGET

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is covering most of the senior-meal costs, according to county financial summaries. But the local share required for the federal disaster program remains significant, given the high cost of the program.

A Dec. 7 memo by Ed Marquez, the county’s chief financial officer, said Miami-Dade had allocated about $28 million of its $474 million CARES Act fund to cover senior-meal expenses through 2020.

Both revenue sources remain in place in January, but it’s not known for how long. Marquez said FEMA agreed to consider monthly renewals until March, and Miami-Dade’s CARES Act fund is in demand for more rental assistance and other relief programs.

The meals program costs more than $2 million a week. The expense has been dropping since the summer as Miami-Dade pares down the delivery list. Miami-Dade has shifted some participants to other senior programs, while other recipients opt out, said Annika Holder, interim director of the county’s Community Action and Human Services department.

“Family members are stepping in to further support their loved ones, and every day we have seniors who self-elect to discontinue the service,” she said.

Miami-Dade closed the program to new participants in July. Deliveries hit their peak in late May, with an average of 86,000 meals delivered a day. The latest figure, from Jan. 3, was 42,103 meals delivered — a reduction of about 50%.

Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Miami-Dade is confident it will continue receiving federal dollars for the program, including the possibility of new money from the stimulus legislation enacted in December. She called meal delivery vital for older residents leery of leaving their homes. “You’ve got people who have been isolating for 10 months,” she said.

The deliveries remain welcome for Marcia Gomez, 74, a retired healthcare worker. She opened the front door of her Coral Reef apartment on a recent morning to a DeliverLean driver dropping off the chicken parmigiana and other meals that were on that week’s menu.

“They bring me a lot of vegetables,” she said. “I’m happy, because I need them.”

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