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Drivers deliver meals to seniors through Seattle slush

Workers had the option to wait out the storm, but King County’s Meals on Wheels took to the streets anyway. 

Fai Mathews carries a meal delivery for Meals on Wheels through a back alley on Phinney Ridge in Seattle, Feb. 12, 2019 (All photos by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

While public schools, the courts and garbage collection all paused for the snow again Tuesday, Fai Matthews and her small team of Meals on Wheels delivery drivers went to work, loading frozen meatballs and omelets into the backs of the vans that deliver them to homes throughout the county.

With the weight of the meals resting on the rear axle of the rear-wheel drive vehicles, Matthews, wearing a brightly colored hair wrap that popped against the graying snow, made a point to call each of her clients before departing. It was a warning of sorts that her team would be knocking on doors today, despite the snow. On Monday, a client was so surprised by one of the delivery people, she assumed he was trying to break in.

“This is Fai from Meals on Wheels, just letting you know we’ll be delivering today,” she said. “Yes, that’s right.”

The promised snowfall delivered, exceeding a foot in many places around Puget Sound. The roads emptied, buses changed their routes and the city, as it often does in inclement weather, ground to a halt, leaving the vast majority of the city’s residents to stay home and watch the falling white and wet substance accumulate.

Meals on Wheels is a national program and serves 2,200 individuals in King County each year. It's housed locally in Sound Generations, a nonprofit agency that helps seniors through a variety of programs. The agency receives federal and philanthropic funding. On Monday, it shuttered some of its functions due to weather.

But not this crew.

“Yesterday, the agency was closed, but we ignored that,” said Adam Porter, director of King County operations. “The agency was closed, but hunger’s not closed.”

Monday was an important day to complete deliveries; many seniors had not received their drop-off the Monday before, following the first of four snowstorms that would cover the region. Missing another would mean some clients would go three weeks without a delivery. 

Matthews, 65 and with a booming laugh, got stuck only once during her south Seattle route on Monday — passers-by with shovels quickly dug her out, she said. There was little question she’d run her north Seattle route Tuesday. 

From a warehouse in SoDo, drivers fan out across King County — north to Shoreline, east to Mercer Island, south as far as Federal Way. At each delivery, clients receive two weeks' worth of food, portioned on disposable trays, shrink wrapped and frozen. The meals spoon together in thick coolers, although with the temperatures outside, it was no challenge keeping them frozen. 

For some of the seniors over 60 who receive meals, it’s more than a delivery — it’s also a wellness check of sorts. Only those who have trouble shopping for themselves qualify for the program, which often means the recipients have trouble doing other things as well.

That motivated the crew through the snow.

“I grew up kind of poor, so I know what it’s like to miss a meal,” said Julian Montgomery, a driver of six years. “But the difference is I can get up and make myself something to eat or go out and get something. These people can’t even get out in the sunshine.”

As the snow began falling over the weekend, the drivers called about 80 clients. They asked who was running low on food. One diabetic man said he was concerned about his dwindling supplies, so he was moved to the top of the list.

By 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, a line of vans squelched their way onto the wet pavement from the Spokane Street warehouse. Without checking GPS, Matthews dipped into the new State Route 99 tunnel, which was dry.

The snow had changed to rain Monday night. So while the main roads were clear, the side streets had turned to slush. Matthews has done this job for 11 years now and was a mail delivery driver before that, so she has seen Seattle’s streets in a lot of different conditions. They’ve never been quite this bad, she said.

She got stuck in an intersection on her way to the first delivery. Two people walking by recommended she put her floor mats beneath her wheels. She did and with their pushing, the van lurched forward. She got stuck again as she was leaving the same delivery and again on her way to Phinney Ridge. On a road north of Greenwood, her wheels sunk so deep that a man with a backhoe needed to pull her to a clear street.

Each time, Matthews would thank her helpers. But when they learned what she was doing, they would end up thanking her instead.

In a show of camaraderie, a passing mail deliverer, in the midst of her own struggle against the elements, shouted to Matthews through her side door: “I’m not going to let this ruin 10 years of sobriety.”

After each battle with the slush, Matthews would position her car just out of the way of traffic and stomp her way to her client’s door. “Meals on Wheels!” she’d shout, in a commanding but inviting voice. And each time, the recipient would express amazement she’d made it there at all.

A man in North Seattle tows Fai Mathews' cargo van with a tractor during a meal delivery route for Meals on Wheels in Seattle, Feb. 12, 2019 

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Drivers deliver meals to seniors through Seattle slush

About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman is a staff reporter at Crosscut focused on local politics.

Matt M. McKnight

Matt M. McKnight is a staff visual journalist who started working with the organization in 2016. Previously, he was a freelance photo editor and photographer with various organizations across the globe.