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Articles

Meals that Matter

Kitchen
Vollrath Pro Staff -

How Vollrath equipment helps Fresh Meals On Wheels serve the community

For more than 51 years, Fresh Meals On Wheels has provided tasty, nutritious, home-delivered meals to elderly, disabled, and home-bound community members. They're a nonprofit organization that serves hundreds of meals a day all across Sheboygan County.

A member of Meals on Wheels America, Fresh Meals On Wheels is an independent 501(c)3 agency and shines as an innovative organization. One of the most notable ways is right there in the name: Fresh.

When Fresh Meals On Wheels first started, they operated in the same way that other Meals on Wheels programs do: they relied on caterers and hospitals to provide the meals. After decades of working with various partners, they decided to shift to a fresh alternative, which provides more control over the meal and the quality.

With the community's support, Fresh Meals On Wheels opened their own facility in the heart of Sheboygan, with a kitchen that featured a variety of Vollrath products, and started making meals using fresh, locally-sourced fruits and vegetables.

Preparing approximately 100,000 meals a year is quite a challenge, and it requires an efficient kitchen, knowledgeable staff, and equipment they know they can depend on. Some employees of the Vollrath Company sat down with Kelly Anderson, the CEO of Fresh Meals On Wheels, to learn how Vollrath products can, and do, help them get the job done.

 

Serving Everyone, Safely

Fresh Meals On Wheels started using fresh ingredients because they were dedicated to providing better food to the people they serve. Not only did that mean serving what they considered "real, food food" but also catering to a variety of specialty diets.

They didn't want to turn away anyone in need, which presented the unique challenge of meeting a wide range of dietary restrictions and requirements. Fresh Meals On Wheels currently offers one general diet and six specialty diets: Heart Healthy, Controlled Carb, Renal, Gluten Free, Bland, and Lactose Intolerant.

But, specialty diets can be tricky, and "good enough" isn't actually good enough: the Fresh Meals On Wheels staff need to ensure precise nutritional content and portions controlled down to the ounce, without the risk of cross contamination. It's a challenging task.

"We're really working with some very ill people, so messing around with serving sizes can't be done here. It just can't; it's important," says Anderson.

So how do they manage? One tool they depend on is the Vollrath Spoodle® utensil. In fact, Anderson says it's the most used item in their kitchen. "It works really well… it is efficient, it is exact."

Fresh Meals On Wheels has a Spoodle utensil in every capacity that Vollrath offers, and they use them daily to ensure accurate portions. This precision is critical in helping them safely serve all of their clients, especially those with special dietary needs.

According to Anderson, the one-piece design of the Spoodle utensil is another safety benefit. She says it "can be cleaned easily, and there's no hidden parts, so we don't have to worry about food safety."

Not only does the seamless, one-piece design eliminate common traps for nasty germs, the handle also features all-natural antimicrobial properties that actively guard against harmful bacteria, which is a win-win for the busy Fresh Meals On Wheels kitchen.

Fresh Meals On Wheels also relies on Vollrath warming equipment to keep allergen-free foods off the regular serving line. Instead of serving those food items right next to the rest of the food, allergen-free items are kept warm and toasty in a separate area entirely, safe from cross contamination.

Powerful induction ranges and cookware allow the Fresh Meals On Wheels staff to keep their clients safe without sacrificing food quality, which is of primary importance.

 

Making Food Go Further

When preparing hundreds of meals a day, sourcing enough fresh produce is no easy task. Approximately 18,000 pounds of produce is grown per year in the Fresh Meals On Wheels gardens at their facility, and the rest is donated by local growers and farmers.

When relying on the generosity of others, as Fresh Meals On Wheels does, they strive to make the most of everything they're given. Inconsistent portions not only affect the meals in a nutritional sense, but also limit the number of meals they're able to produce. That can become a big problem if not kept in check, especially when Fresh Meals On Wheels is committed to preventing a waitlist.

Anderson explained that other Meals on Wheels programs and similar organizations sometimes have waitlists. That's something she's dedicated to preventing in Sheboygan County, which means everyone at Fresh Meals On Wheels has to be very careful about wasting food.

"When that food comes in the door, we need to honor it and not waste it. We cannot be wasting food, we just can't. There are too many people hungry."

The Spoodle utensil, again, helps Fresh Meals On Wheels ensure consistent portions and prevent waste. And, the unique shape of the Spoodle utensil gets right into food pan corners, allowing Fresh Meals On Wheels to serve up every ounce of the food they've received.

As an added bonus, scraping out those corners during serving makes their food pans much easier to clean, which allows them to improve efficiency and save valuable time, water and resources.

Vollrath dishers are also key in controlling portions, according to Anderson. They help speed food preparation and serving times, and are used for everything from pre-portioning meatballs, serving rice balls, scooping holiday cookies, and more. The Vollrath dishers offer the fastest way to get things done, maximize output and ensure consistent portions, so nothing gets wasted.

 

Reducing Replacement Costs

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Fresh Meals On Wheels faced additional challenges. With a small staff to begin with, and clients who fell into the "high-risk" category, their biggest fear was not serving their clients when they needed it most.

They acknowledged that the pandemic might reduce their staff at any moment, so they decided to mass-produce meals while they could. The hope was that they'd have enough meals already prepared if their team ended up quarantining, ill, or caring for family members.

Anderson attributes their success through the pandemic to the kitchen staffs' ability to ramp up production and flash freeze as much food as possible. "Instead of making 200, 300, 400, 500 meals in a day, they were making two and three thousand meals a day. It was insane."

Thanks to flash-freezing equipment, like blast chillers, everything was able to be cooked and frozen. Daily deliveries of hot meals turned into once-a-week bulk deliveries of frozen food, with as little contact as they could manage with their high-risk clients. The meals were stacked on Vollrath trays keeping everything organized and safely stored.

Throughout this mad-dash to cook as much as possible, the staff worried whether their equipment could keep up with the sudden high demand. The dependability of Vollrath products was crucial to Fresh Meals On Wheels during this time. They needed everything going on all cylinders, and they didn't have time for things to break. Thankfully, nothing did. 

"I have no question that [Vollrath equipment] will outlive me," says Anderson. "It's indestructible." Which, she explained, is why replacement costs for Vollrath products never find their way into the Fresh Meals On Wheels budget: it's unnecessary.

 

Sharing the Success

The success of Fresh Meals On Wheels hasn't gone unnoticed. Other Meals on Wheels programs, and comparable organizations, have recognized them for their focus on fresh and local ingredients, their variety of specialty diets, and their ability to pivot during the pandemic. They've been asked to take on other counties and diets, and share their secrets with others in the United States and Canada.

Anderson acknowledges that the quality of the food they make is a huge achievement for their organization, but also attributes the popularity of their program to the quality of the relationships they build with their clients.

Volunteers deliver hot, ready-to-eat meals, and take time to get to know, check on, and socialize with their clients. While the pandemic limited these interactions, Fresh Meals On Wheels volunteers still made sure their clients knew they were there for them.

Called the "more than a meal" approach, these visits provide peace of mind for clients and their families and help boost their health and well-being. These community members are deeply cared about, and Fresh Meals On Wheels makes sure they know it. Holidays and clients' birthdays are celebrated with flair and fun, reminding them that they're an essential part of the Sheboygan County community and that they deserve to be recognized.

Those of us at Vollrath are pretty inspired by the achievements of Fresh Meals On Wheels, and are honored to create products that help them achieve their mission.

If you'd like to help, Fresh Meals On Wheels is currently looking for volunteers. You can check them out on Facebook, or on their website, to get even more information about the work they do and find a way to get involved.