Dearborn’s Meals on Wheels Delivers a Recipe for Halal Success
Linda Gardner Phillips
Imagine the despair of being elderly, alone, and hungry. One of ten senior citizens have worried about food, according to the Meals on Wheels Association of America Funded through the Administration on Aging, Senior Nutrition Programs help ease hunger by serving over one million meals to older people each day. Often diners meet in a central location, but Meals on Wheels programs bring delicious food directly to each senior’s home. In Wayne County, these meals are now available as halal options.
This groundbreaking halal Meals on Wheels program came to life in Dearborn, Michigan, thanks to the joint efforts of three local organizations: the Senior Alliance Area Agency on Aging 1-C, Wayne County, and ACCESS, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, a local non-profit providing human services at the grassroots level.
Through this Meals on Wheels program, 65 halal meals are delivered Monday through Friday to elderly halal consumers living in southern and western Wayne County, delighting them with hot food and personal interaction.
Thriving Dearborn first gained fame as the home of the Ford Motor Company. Today it proudly hosts the Arab American National Museum and the country’s largest population of Arab Americans. Dearborn also contains a significant number of elderly halal consumers who often can’t get halal food due to mobility, language and technology barriers. Joan Siavrakas, Director of Senior Services for Wayne County, describes this hidden population as “typically, isolated women, living alone.”
Ten years ago, the three organizations learned about this underserved group when seniors repeatedly wondered why they could not receive halal meal deliveries.
They worked together to test an innovative halal food pilot program. The positive feedback proved the need and desire for halal Meals on Wheels.
In October 2009, fresh federal funding arrived and the Senior Alliance set out to find a capable contractor — no small task. All Meals on Wheels contractors must meet strict federal guidelines for nutrition, delivery and ongoing assessments. But this endeavor also called for culturally appropriate, halal-certified food. They finally accepted the proposal of a large national corporation, which seemed an obvious solution for such a large meal volume.
Reaching out to the area’s unique senior demographic also proved challenging. Some elders in need were refugees, and many were illiterate in English and/or didn’t speak the language. ACCESS provided many key referrals. This center emerged from the Dearborn Arab community over 40 years ago to serve immigrants, and now runs 100 diverse programs reaching over 70,000 local residents.
Despite a promising start, the fledgling halal program ran into roadblocks. The initial contractor couldn’t meet halal dietary prerequisites, and had no agility to make rapid adjustments. The participants felt alienated by the firm’s phone translation service, which many could not understand or use. After three months, the Senior Alliance switched to a new contractor, Wayne County, which had proven connections with local restaurants and customs.
Wayne County already served 3800 Meals on Wheels per week, and quickly refocused the halal program closer to home. They identified the best halal-certified area kitchens to take on the stringent requirements. The county and the agency narrowed down their options to choose the new halal provider: The Country Restaurant, a Dearborn middle-eastern restaurant with an enthusiastic owner.
The restaurant’s Meals on Wheels menu rotates daily, and features healthy food such as Chicken Shawarma, pita bread, kafta, baba ghanooj, hummous, tabouli and lots of vegetables. Since 2010, the owner has been delighted to be the contractor, and sees it as a good way to give back to the Muslim community. Remarkably, he makes all of the deliveries himself, a job normally done by a team of volunteers.
“This social interaction is very important,” notes Amne Darwish-Talab, ACCESS Director of Social Services East, and a commissioner on the Michigan Governor’s Commission on Aging. “They feel good about it and it is personal.” She stresses that Meals on Wheels benefits homebound seniors not only because they can’t cook, but also because they often lack families and thrive on the human contact. Siavrakas adds that “the person delivering the meal often means more than the meal itself,” and praises the restaurant owner’s “uplifting human contact” with his clients.
Wayne County extended the program’s reach by rehiring Nabiya Rizk, a highly capable bilingual woman who had worked in the pilot program. Her ability to network locally and communicate warmly proved crucial. Rizk met with people face to face. She helped locals and participants
grasp the program’s potential, and as word spread, she rapidly located more eligible clients. Today she often receives direct phone calls from those who’d like to participate. Further, each recipient receives at least two visits per year from Rizk, which also helps her gather direct feedback.
By going local, the halal Meals on Wheels program truly fulfilled its mission. The homebound appreciate receiving a halal meal that’s hot and good to eat. They anticipate the personal visits, which give them a foothold in the larger Muslim community. Most remarkably, the Meals on Wheels recipients find ways to give back, too.
Margaret Watson, the Planning and Programming Manager for the Senior Alliance, notes that the halal participants tend to voluntarily leave the program so that others can take their place. For example, one heart surgery patient could not feed herself, but asked to be removed from the delivery list when her condition improved. Watson says that it’s highly unusual and impressive for Meals on Wheels recipients to do this, as they tend to fear food shortage. The halal patrons’ generosity proves their appreciation of this valuable service, which can only serve 65 meals per day.
Can your community launch a halal Meals on Wheels program?
Watson and Amanda D’Angelo, Contracts Specialist for the Senior Alliance, shared this checklist for success:
Find community members to advocate for federal funding. The Agency on Aging is required to meet the needs of the local community. They must hear from local people, or the funding will not materialize.
Provide justification for funding by clearly documenting the existing need. Present your case, and make your presence known, at annual agency hearings.
Know your target population, and hire people who can communicate with them in their own language(s), and appropriate cultural context(s).
Find a good nutrition who understands how to delight the cultural palate while creating healthy meals that meet all requirements.
Create a delivery plan and prepare to handle a consistent and sustainable volume with volunteers or one provider.
Work with a community group for fundraising. Government funding probably won’t cover all costs.
Keep your program going by planning ahead for times when funds run low. In Dearborn, a suggested donation of $2.25 per meal helps fill in the gaps.
Know the requirements and meet them meticulously. If your program cannot meet the federal standards, it simply will cease to exist.
Meals on Wheels Association of America
About the Writer: Linda Gardner Phillips is a writer and the Director of Public Relations for Deerpath Farm, a conservation community north of Chicago. She also writes for Enjoy Illinois, the official blog of the Illinois Office of Tourism. (http://Enjoyillinoisblog.com)