There was quite a bit of excitement at Meals on Wheels this week!
On July 17, we met our new Chief Executive Officer, Jennifer Steele, who flew across the country from her home in Cincinnati to meet us for the first time and to get to know our operations.
Jennifer was the President & CEO of Meals on Wheels of Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky whose mission runs parallel to ours – ensuring older adults in the region have home-delivered meals and services that help them live with grace and independence in their homes.
She has an impressive track record of success having led the Ohio Meals on Wheels for almost five years and helping it transform into an innovative organization that better serves thousands of homebound older seniors. She also serves on the national board of Meals on Wheels America, is an accomplished lecturer, and has been honored with numerous awards for her service to the community including Outstanding Woman of Northern Kentucky by the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
“My goal is to support all of you in delivering on our mission and making sure that we’re fighting senior hunger and loneliness in this community,” Jennifer announced as she introduced herself to us in our employee cafeteria. “You know, people think the CEO is the face of the organization, but you are every bit the face of the organization as well and I just have such a deep respect and appreciation for the work that you do.”
Jennifer has dedicated her professional career to advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves. She explained that before joining Meals on Wheels, she worked in food insecurity and hunger relief both domestically and internationally.
“I’ve always been passionate about nutrition and hunger. I’m a social worker. I’ve always cared a lot about seniors, and underserved groups. I’ve always wanted to fight for people’s rights and make sure that they have what they need.”
Jennifer shared with us that when she went to school to become a social worker (she received her Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Public Administration from Northern Kentucky University) she never imagined that she’d be a CEO. But when she started working in the field, she began seeing how broken so many systems were and how much that impacted the ability of individuals to overcome a lot of challenges. That’s when she began working her way up the ranks, hitting each level.
“I realized I could do so much more if I could climb a little higher and do so much more if I had more influence and to amplify my voice. It [becoming a CEO] was really about how I can have the biggest impact and affect the most change every step of the way.”
Once the morning meet and greets were done, Jennifer toured the kitchen and headquarters to see how more than 10,000 meals are prepared, packaged, and delivered each day. Later, she met with District 10 (Bayview) Supervisor, Shamann Walton, to learn about the impact Meals on Wheels has in this community. We celebrated the end of her first day with an intimate reception held in our kitchen.
“I definitely think there is so much opportunity for this organization [Meals on Wheels San Francisco] not only to be the biggest in the country but to really lead the nation in some innovative, new approaches.”
Jennifer is no stranger to innovative ideas. Back in Ohio, during the pandemic, she acquired a food truck using COVID emergency relief funds and had it retrofitted to cook Meals on Wheels meals. Her team then drove that truck to low-income senior housing buildings – places where people with needs lived but had little to no access to transportation or affordable meals. The pilot for this truck became a huge success.
“We’ve also used it to serve meals to some of the homeless camps,” she explained. “Using it to help facilitate the unhoused counts because food is an offering and builds trust in the community. We’re now starting to use it in targeted ways, including some congregate meals.”
Another innovative idea Jennifer implemented to counter loneliness and isolation involved something a little unconventional. Nearly 40% of adults aged 60+ in the U.S. live alone according to 2022 data from Meals on Wheels America. In San Francisco, that number jumps to 67% of the seniors we serve who live alone. There are studies that point to the fact that pets can decrease stress and help improve one’s mental health, particularly in older adults. But what if you live somewhere that you cannot have a pet?
She and her team decided to acquire robotic pets; life-like cats and dogs that react and respond to humans. They provided the mechanical critters to seniors living in nursing homes and to those who could not physically take care of a real pet. Jennifer recalls reporters picked up on this unique news item immediately.
“It was a great way for us to talk to the media about the innovation and the social isolation and loneliness piece of what we do which is so important. One lady had not left her room in a long time and would not talk to staff when they came in. But, when she met the robotic dog we gave her, she started making playdates with it and soon invited the other residents to doggie dates. She went from being lonely to becoming this social butterfly among the other residents.”
On day two of her visit with us, Jennifer donned a pair of jeans, and a Meals on Wheels safety vest, and hit the road helping to deliver meals to seniors living in both the Bayview and Tenderloin areas of the city. In Bayview, she met Roslyn who has been receiving meals from us since 2020.
“How do you like Meals on Wheels; is there anything we can do better?” Jennifer asks Roslyn.
“I love Meal on Wheels,” Roslyn answers. “You guys are great. I’m thankful you have the program. A lot of seniors have to make a choice between [paying] their utilities and eating, their rent, and eating, medicine and eating.”
On her last day in San Francisco, Jennifer came in at the crack of dawn and helped bag thousands of pounds of groceries – part of our Home-Delivered Groceries volunteer program and partnership with the SF-Marin Food Bank.
Jennifer will move with her daughter across the country in August and plans on having feet on the ground in the Bay Area after Labor Day.
“I am so excited for the opportunity to work with all of you and to take what’s clearly a really good organization to the next level. I fell in love with San Francisco when I visited, and I think it’s going to be a lot more my speed than the Midwest. This is where I belong; I’m excited.”