KRCG Features Partnership with Local Restaurants to Help Feed Seniors

posted 3/31/2021 in Press Releases

A new partnership established to ensure older Iowans could safely receive meals during the pandemic also helped a Fayette County restaurant stay in business during a challenging period.

From mid-March through May, restaurants in Iowa were closed to dine-in service and could only offer customers carryout or delivery orders.

Sheila and Jason Bents, the owners of Bents Smokehouse in Westgate, said their restaurant was barely staying afloat.

“Very slow,” Sheila said. “Some days, there wasn’t even $100 in the till.”

Then the Bents received a lifeline last April.

“We happened to have a gal come in here one day and ask how business was, and we told her how slow it was,” Sheila said. “And she said she’s got a great deal for us. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘It’s Meals on Wheels during COVID.’”

That started a partnership between Bents and the Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging, also known as NEI3A, which runs the Meals on Wheels program in 18 counties in Iowa.

While NEI3A reported an increase in meals delivered during the pandemic — 191,727 of them from July 2019 to December 2019, which the agency said is more than double the number delivered during that six-month span in 2018 — its volunteer numbers trended in the opposite direction.

“It literally evaporated the volunteer base almost overnight,” NEI3A CEO Mike Donohue said, explaining the agency relies on volunteers to both prepare and deliver meals.

Its congregate meal sites, where seniors can get a hot meal in a cafeteria-style group setting, have also been shut down.

“We were quite busy with providing meals pre-pandemic, and of course, once the pandemic hit, everything just imploded, like every place else,” Donohue said.

In response, NEI3A established partnerships with grocery stores and restaurants to make and deliver meals to older residents near them, which Donohue said were especially needed in rural areas they have trouble getting to regularly, like Westgate.

At the peak, staff at Bents were cooking and sending out 97 meals five days a week. That number has dropped to 15 meals three days a week, but on two of those days, drivers bring both a hot meal and a second meal that people can heat up later.

“I go around Westgate. I go up towards Randalia, Iowa. I got a stop in Maynard and a stop down outside of Oelwein,” Jason said.

The Bents said they have a contract to work with Meals on Wheels through at least the summer of next year.

“We want to stay involved with it. We enjoy it,” Sheila said.

“It’s a good program, it really is,” Jason added.

Because while business has picked up, with the Bents saying customers usually need a reservation right now to snag a table on the weekends, they’re grateful to the organization that helped them stay open.

“If it wasn’t for them, we probably wouldn’t be here,” Sheila said.

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