On the Road with Meals on Wheels
October 19, 2019Jim Oswald

It’s 7:15 am and there’s a flurry of activity happening in the Meals on Wheels San Francisco parking lot.

Phil Ishida arrived almost two hours ago to help get things ready for the day’s meal deliveries. While Meals on Wheels SF (MOWSF) kitchen staff cook and package between 3,000 and 8,000 meals (depending on the need for the day) Phil and the other meal delivery drivers are checking their routes and loading up brightly colored bags containing freshly made meals that they’ll deliver to senior recipients in San Francisco that morning.

Meals are coded by type to meet the medical needs of each client; a yellow bag means a mechanically softened dinner is inside, light green means a low sodium meal, and dark green represents regular dinners which range in a variety of culinary creations from creamy broccoli soups, and pasta and beef dishes, to chicken asana, and vegetable and fish dishes. At clients’ requests, many receive breakfast meals of scrambled eggs and pancakes too.


Phil, a seven-year MOWSF veteran and retired Wells Fargo banker, got involved as a volunteer when he saw a Meals on Wheels van one day and decided he wanted to learn about the organization. He began volunteering through his company and was assigned to the South of Market route, an area that is home to approximately 20 percent of MOWSF at-risk older adult clients who live in SROs (single-room occupancy hotels) in the city. Some have struggled with drug addiction. Others can only afford to live in these units due to scant finances (nearly 70% of the clients we provide meals to live on less than $1,000 a month), medical limitations, or both. During his stint as a volunteer, Phil saw firsthand the true need to help those who were trapped in their rooms due to mobility issues as well as those who just didn’t have anyone to turn to for help and were food insecure. Approximately 68 percent of the seniors Meals on Wheels serves in San Francisco live alone.

Phil retired from Wells Fargo in 2012, and decided he wanted to continue to help the seniors he met while volunteering, so in 2012, he applied for a permanent position as a Home-Delivered Meals driver and today, continues delivering meals on the South of Market route.

7:45 am

Today, Philip is partnered with Jerron. Together, their route will have each of them walking close to 14 miles and climbing hundreds of steps inside old buildings in order to deliver 180 meals.

8:15 am — South of Market

The elevator was not working between the third and fourth floors of the Raman Hotel. Phil and Jerron take it in stride; they carry the cart of 30 bagged meals up two flights of steps to the fourth-floor landing.

“Hello, Meals on Wheels,” Phil announces outside as he knocks vigorously on a door. No answer.

Phil knows at least 100 of the 180 seniors he sees daily. He’s built relationships with them and knows their habits–particularly how they like to interact (or not) with him when he arrives at their door.

Continuing on the fourth floor, Phil and Jerron make their rounds knocking on doors and delivering bundles of food. A few residents poke their heads outside after the knock – waving and saying thank you for the delivery. Others are sleeping or wish to not be disturbed. Phil knows them all and never takes it personally.

8:35 am

Phil recounts how he encountered one apartment recently with a coroner’s sticker on the front door, signifying that the occupant inside had passed away. On average, he learns of a death about once every three months. More frequently, he encounters seniors who have fallen and are in need of assistance. In those cases, he helps them up but, if there is a serious injury or medical issue, he phone’s for help.

“It’s more than just a meal – the wellness checks are a critical part of the service and are what helps seniors live independently with dignity in their homes,” says Phil.

While Phil leaves one room where he has just handed a resident a meal, he pulls out his phone and logs the interaction on an app. He selects a smiley face emoji button signifying that she received a meal and is doing well today; that data is immediately sent back to MOWSF and the Social Work team. If the senior was not doing well, Phil would annotate that (a sad face emoji) so the Social Work team knows and can follow up to make sure all is alright or determine if they should go visit the client immediately.

“Seeing my clients smile every day, seeing that they’re alive and o.k., that’s what keeps me going,” Phil says with a satisfying smile.

9:20 am

The team has already delivered 80 meals this morning and have 80-90 more to deliver by 3:00 pm. They head back to Bayview for a quick break and to re-charge, before they’re back on the road to South of Market.

Did you know?

Meals on Wheels San Francisco is the only organization in the city that offers delivery of two meals a day—something no other program in the city does.

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