Carey Johnson’s weekday usually starts at 4 a.m. He arrives at work about an hour and a half later, accompanied by a cup of coffee and takeout biscuit brought for breakfast, as he helps organize about 350 meals for others.
“Sometimes it’s hard to move in the mornings,” he says with a smile, lifting the cup from the metal kitchen counter.
While Johnson gets ready to start the oven, Tracy Shehab is reviewing the long list of clients for the day with her glasses perched on her head.
The scheduled meal is fish, but many clients don’t like fish or can’t eat it because of dietary concerns. Others won’t be at home to get their meals because of hospitalizations or medical appointments.
Shehab and Johnson, who both serve as program leaders for the Cobb County Meals On Wheels program, quietly discuss the number of substitute meals that will be needed for lunch while a morning radio show plays in the background.
Johnson, who has worked for Cobb Senior Services for 13 years, sorts the frozen meals and prepares to place them in the industrial-style oven. A huge pile of insulated plastic containers for keeping the meals hot is stacked nearby.
“It’s not the money that keeps me here,” he says. “I like getting up in the morning and making sure people have something to eat.”
Feeding the needs of others is at the heart of the Meals On Wheels program, which first came to existence during World War II to help families who lost their homes during the bombing of Great Britain. An American version of the program, designed to help feed the elderly and homebound, began in the 1950s.
It spread across the nation, arriving in Cobb County in 1972. Today, the program is supported by state and federal grants, private donations, as well as the work of those who make the deliveries possible.
Ella Martin, an 85-year-old Marietta resident, said she cannot operate a microwave because of her pacemaker and prefers not to wait for others to cook for her in the kitchen she shares with roommates. She joked that if the food had more seasoning, she wouldn’t have anything to complain about.
“Sometimes this is all I eat all day long,” Martin said of the meal waiting on her table. “And I’m still here.”
Food from the Meals On Wheels program doesn’t just feed more than 200 seniors – many on fixed incomes – stuck at their homes and apartments. An additional 150 meals are sent to the neighborhood senior centers in Marietta, north Cobb and Austell, officials said.
The hot meals help these older residents maintain their independence and prevent many from having to enter nursing homes, said Linda Parrott, the manager of operations for Senior Services. Without the program, many would go hungry or not maintain a balanced diet.
“You would have a lot of older adults in Cobb County without the proper nutrition,” Parrott said.
Poor nutrition would only make their health problems worse, leading to greater dependence on the health system, she noted.
A billboard outside the Senior Services kitchen in Marietta is ornamented with a half-dozen “Thank You” notes from clients. Most were handwritten. Below the billboard were a line of coolers to hold drinks and condiments for the day’s lunch delivery.
By mid-morning, the volunteers driving each route arrived, collecting the containers and reading through their daily roster.
Don Ingold of East Cobb, a retiree who himself is 76 years old, drives a route every Friday and has done this work for 13 years. He enjoys making new friends and visiting with the clients, some of whom are younger than he.
“I’m fortunate, I guess,” he said. “Who knows? Someday I may be on the receiving end.”
He said some clients don’t say much, but many enjoy talking to him and seem to appreciate the company.
“I firmly believe the visit itself can mean a great deal in addition to the meal,” Ingold said, driving through another Marietta neighborhood.
While the volunteers handle the bulk of the deliveries, the Meals On Wheels staff regularly fill in when someone can’t make it. They also handle shipping meals to the neighborhood Senior Centers.
Carey Johnson said sometimes he or the volunteers are the only people clients see all week. It becomes difficult when they have bad days and start crying during the visits, unloading their problems on the only shoulder they have available.
“You feel heartbroken for the things that are going on in their lives,” he said. “You’ll find a lot of that.”
He said in such cases, they contact the client’s case manager to see what can be done to help. Johnson said he once spent an hour and a half talking to a client.
Tracy Shehab, who previously worked as the cafeteria manager for an elementary school, said while driving a route might normally take a couple of hours, the visits with clients usually means volunteers have about four hours of work ahead of them.
“The drives on some of the routes can be really long,” she said. Routes are designed to save driving time and allow the volunteers to finish where they start.
Only four people work as paid staff for the Cobb County program and each has a hand in getting the meals out. Jobcy Alexander, the nutrition coordinator for Cobb Meals On Wheels, said her staff does an excellent job and clearly care about the welfare of their clients.
“They’re definitely dedicated and doing everything they can to keep it going,” Alexander said. “They really make an impact on people’s lives.”