Elizabeth Forward Meals on Wheels program changing hands

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 1:06 a.m.

Elizabeth Forward Meals on Wheels' kitchen is closing next month, but the program will continue distributing meals to local homes.

Volunteers from the program, based at Central Highlands United Methodist Church, on Friday met with officials from Lutheran Services, which administers the food delivery program, and Springboard Kitchens, a nonprofit organization that collects food, to discuss the change, expected to take effect on March 4.

Food preparation for the Elizabeth Forward and South Park Meals on Wheels programs is being shifted to a kitchen at First United Methodist Church in Clairton, already serving Clairton's meal program.

The move is part of Lutheran Services' efforts to consolidate services among the 38 local meal delivery programs it oversees in order to cut operating costs.

Lutheran Services site coordinator Michele Taylor said the Clairton site is being selected because it is the most central location among the three programs it now will serve. She said the kitchen also has greater oven capacity.

She said a secondary factor considered in the move to Clairton is that the rent paid to the facility there will help the church keep its doors open. The rent is about $200 cheaper at the Elizabeth Township church but she said the income is less essential to that church's future.

Many attending the meeting said they are unhappy with the way the Elizabeth Forward program has been run by Lutheran Services for the past three years. Though the program always had ties to Lutheran Services because of its tax status, the agency had for many years taken a mostly hands-off approach to running the meal program.

Geoffrey Zak of Lutheran Services said that changed when rising costs forced his agency to begin regionalizing kitchens to lower operational costs. He acknowledged that meal programs lost the trust of many volunteers when the switch was made and said his agency could have done a better job communicating with those affected by the consolidation of services.

“We want to bring the community spirit back into Meals on Wheels,” Zak said.

Dorothy Howell, who founded the Elizabeth Forward program in 1981, was among many at the meeting who felt the program had suffered under Lutheran Services.

“We were self-sufficient,” said Howell, who noted that, after Lutheran Services took over, the local program lost access to its own funding. Howell said the quality of food also suffered as did local donations.

Howell said one volunteer has safety concerns about going to Clairton early in the morning to prepare food. Howell also said she didn't know if she'd continue volunteering once the local kitchen closes.

John and June Stefl said Tuesday was their last day of volunteering after 16 years.

“It used to be fun,” June Stefl said. “Now it's just stressful.”

She said she and her husband are looking into volunteering at McKeesport Light of Life Mission instead.

Other volunteers such as Joe Amatangelo said they would stay on with the local program.

Amatangelo said, as a driver, he wouldn't be affected by the changes much. He'll still pick up his meals at the township church.

As for the need to lower costs, he added, “I can see where they're coming from. The money is not there.”

Tod Shoenberger from Springboard Kitchens said he is willing to meet with volunteers to discuss ways of improving food quality.

Lutheran Services officials said they would like to make the meetings with volunteers a regular occurrence.

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or eslagle@tribweb.com.

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