I met up with Meals on Wheels of Charleston volunteer Bobbi Sigmon Holland at Saint Francis Hospital. As part of my month with the local charity, I was going to learn about what went into the packing of the food that went out to people around the city.
Bobbi met me at the door.
On the way in, a hospital worker quizzed us about our physical state and then aimed a thermometer at our foreheads.
Then, we took the elevator down to the lower level. She led me to the kitchen, where a skeleton crew of masked kitchen staff worked through their morning tasks.
Meals on Wheels of Charleston had a small cart set aside near the coolers and pantry deep in the kitchen. This is where the morning packers prepared the two dozen or so meals that would go out at around 10:30 a.m.
Some of the work had already been done. Hospital kitchen workers had cooked everything and already packaged the salad that would go out in the paper bags. Slices of white sandwich bread had been placed in plastic and crackers had been set aside, as well.
“They do a lot of the work for us,” Bobbi said.
It was part of the deal Meals on Wheels of Charleston had with the hospital, and not a bad one, Bobbi told me.
Meals on Wheels recipients pay $1 a day for the food that comes to them, $5 a week. Meals on Wheels paid $2 for every meal.
The money they got to cover the rest comes from donations.
“There’s another Meals on Wheels,” Bobbi told me. “That’s national. We’re just local people.”
The group has been around since 1970, doing a modest amount of good with limited resources and a small group of volunteers.
Meals on Wheels of Charleston doesn’t get federal funding or have any of the benefits of a large organization. Bobbi said they negotiated to get the rate on the meals they provided because they couldn’t afford not to.
The pennies they saved added up and let them do more.
There wasn’t a lot for me to do, except to occasionally lift or hand something to Bobbi. She did most of the actual work, apologizing as she went.
“Usually, what I do when I train someone is let them watch me the first time,” she said. “The second time, I let them do it, but I watch.”
On the third try, the new packer should be able to do the job without anyone looking over their shoulder, she said.
Me jumping in would throw off things and disrupt the schedule.
Bobbi liked packing the food but didn’t want to drive.
Driving could get hard, she told me.
“The drivers get to know people,” she said.
Inevitably, people receiving meals slip off the roster.
But Bobbi delivered one meal. She’d signed up a neighbor for Meals on Wheels a while back.
“When I pack, I just go ahead and take it to him,” she said.
As we packed, she put in an extra piece of chicken for him. It was a spare.
A woman from the hospital kitchen staff helped Bobbi scoop hot vegetables and place pieces of roasted chicken breast into the boxes. Bobbi labeled them as she went. Not everyone got everything. Some people didn’t eat red meat, or they didn’t take corn.
The hospital adjusted where they could.
There were also requests for skim milk, chocolate milk or orange juice, which we collected from the kitchen’s walk-in cooler.
Not every request could be filled. Because of the pandemic, the hospital had cut back on what it kept around. Sometimes, there wasn’t skim or chocolate milk.
“Sometimes, you just get what you get,” she said.
Once everything was put in boxes and bags, and labeled, Bobbi organized the hot meal boxes and the cold food bags in separate coolers on a cart in the hospital cafeteria.
Everything was loaded into the ice chests in order of delivery. The first deliveries were on top. The final deliveries sat on the bottom.
Sealed, Styrofoam containers of soup were put on plastic trays, along with the names, addresses and notes for the people on the two routes.
Then Bobbi and I stood around for a few minutes. We both checked our phones, but in the basement of the building, I had nothing approximating a signal.
Laughing, Bobbi explained the delay.
“If we get the food up to the entrance too early, the drivers will take it,” she said.
Before, 10:30 a.m. was considered a little early for lunch. Sometimes, people complained.
Bobbi shook her head and rolled her eyes.
At the appointed time, we rolled the cart out the double doors of the hospital cafeteria, down the hall and to the elevator. We took the provisions for the day up to the sidewalk, parked the cart just outside the door and then walked away.
Our job was done. Things were now literally out of our hands.
A couple of days later, I showed up for my regular delivery, and I showed up prepared.
The night before, I’d gathered a great mass of plastic shopping bags, stuffed them into the cubby built into the side of the back door. My GPS was plugged in and charged even before I pulled up to the entrance at Saint Francis Hospital.
I was a couple of minutes early, but not so early as to worry that I’d arrived too late.
Everything got loaded into my car and, as the rain picked up, I slipped the surgical mask over my mouth and nose and started out on the street.
My only real goal was to get everything where it was supposed to be before noon.
To increase my chances, I turned off the radio and followed the directions given by the woman’s voice on my GPS. I could listen to Axl Rose sing about the weather some other time.
Nothing went wrong, which was a relief. Even with the rain pouring at times, all of the food got delivered to its destination. I knocked on doors, shouted “Meals on Wheels” and left quickly, before anyone could get to the door.
Sometimes, I felt like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Sometimes, it felt like a very weird Halloween prank.
Either way, I was done before noon. I’d put food, if not on the table, at least on the porch.
Some months, I feel like I learn something or gain the beginning of a new skill. This month, there wasn’t a lot to learn about the job itself.
About once a week, I drove around in my car for 90 minutes. Traffic was never bad. I had to remember one phone number and make myself get a little more organized — but at least I figured out what to do with all those bags the grocery store gives me whenever I forget to bring the canvas bags.
I always forget to bring my canvas bags grocery shopping, even when the bags are just in the car.
Drivers told me about how much they enjoyed delivering. They’d made friends and taken people on their route into their hearts. They knew their names, remembered birthdays and sent flowers.
I seldom saw anyone who wasn’t at least protected by the glass window of a storm door.
Delivering during the pandemic was frustrating. I craved interaction, wanted to connect and have some sense that what I did mattered to the people I delivered to, but it’s hard to take credit for a good deed when you’re rushing to get off the porch before anyone comes outside.
The credit isn’t important. You do the work because it matters. The weak and the vulnerable still need to be taken care of, even if you can’t hear or see them. What’s needed is that they know they haven’t been forgotten, that they still matter.