Chris Culak knocked loudly on the front door of the West Dallas apartment.
“Meals on wheels!” he shouted.
Inside, Betty Aguilar, 83, opened the door slightly and stuck her arms out. Culak handed her two bags: one with a soft taco, bell pepper medley and charro beans. The other contained cold milk and a sugar cookie.
Culak drops by once a week to drop off food and say hello. He’s an executive for the Visiting Nurse Association of Texas, and runs a weekly meals on wheels route for the nonprofit for seven years.
He makes sure people like Aguilar are fed, a critical service for homebound and underprivileged seniors. About 15% of Dallas County seniors, according to the nonprofit, live below the poverty line.
During the pandemic, drivers like Culak have taken on new roles.
Earlier this year, the VNA helped Aguilar get her COVID-19 vaccine and delivered doses with help from the Texas Division of Emergency Management.
Then the organization helped her set up a booster appointment for next month. The group has helped other seniors stay healthy, get rides to the bank or other appointments, and provided heaters in winter and box fans in summertime.
Now, Dallas County has chosen to help the organization expand its services with federal money from the American Rescue Plan.
“What would we do without them?” Aguilar asked. “I’m blessed because right now I have help, but you never know about tomorrow.”
Since 1973, the VNA has delivered meals for homebound seniors across the county. Today, they give out nearly 4,500 warm meals a day, Monday through Friday. The nonprofit also prepares lunch at over two dozen senior centers from Far North Dallas to DeSoto.
But like so much during the COVID-19 pandemic, dining behaviors have changed dramatically since March 2020. The nonprofit reports that demand for meals at senior centers grew by 200% during the pandemic.
Now, more people are staying home, even with plans to reopen public senior centers next year. That means more home-delivered meals for those in need.
With help from the county’s $511 million pool of American Rescue Plan money, the VNA is changing tactics to adapt.
The Dallas County Commissioners Court this month allocated $1.8 million to the organization to expand its meals on wheels program and hire three community health workers to go door-to-door to talk to seniors about the services they provide.
County Judge Clay Jenkins has called the windfall of federal cash a “once in a generation opportunity.” It’s meant to help local governments recover from the pandemic’s impacts on both public health and the economy, and Dallas County is focusing on projects that specifically address underserved communities.
The county will get $511.9 million in two chunks — the first half has already arrived, another check is expected next year. County commissioners have budgeted $111 million for public health; $110 million for impacted communities; $20 million to address the economic hit from the pandemic, $35 million for infrastructure and more.
Culak said that when the county learned that it would receive the federal funds, officials set up calls with many Dallas-area community organizations to discuss how to use the money and how to apply for it. They needed to show a COVID-related impact to their work and prepare a report for county staff to review.
Commissioners have begun doling out that money to a number of those community organizations and government initiatives. In November, they gave $1.9 million to a Dallas nonprofit that provides food and PPE to families in need. Earlier this month, they set aside $5 million to buy 200,000 Walmart gift cards as vaccine incentives.
Next week, the commissioners will consider allocating $500,000 to pay for delivered meals for jurors in criminal cases and $1.9 million for a program that gives construction job training to formerly incarcerated people in the county.
For the VNA, services began to change in the earliest weeks of the pandemic.
Besides the meals on wheels clients, the organization provides food for senior centers that are operated either by the county’s public health department, city governments or neighborhood nonprofits. At those congregate sites, seniors would gather for a meal and other activities daily.
When the senior centers closed in March 2020, they pivoted to a drive-up model, distributing meals curbside.
Demand immediately rose — more needy seniors began driving up for the meals. Now, Culak says, people are telling volunteers that they don’t want to return, even if centers open again next year as planned.
The county’s federal money, he said, will help the association meet the new demand, add more home delivery clients and talk to seniors about how to better meet their needs.
After dropping off Aguilar’s meal, Culak drove through West Dallas. At one home, he dropped off two meals to a husband and wife. At another, he called ahead and left the meal on the porch — the resident there doesn’t like to meet face-to-face.
Hospitals or social services groups refer most of the clients to the organization, Culak said, and the VNA calculates cost by the average amount of time that clients receive the free meals — just 27 months. For that time span, it costs the group about $4,000 to feed each client.
About half of that money comes from state and federal money, he said. The rest comes from donors and philanthropic grants.
But Culak said programs like his help reduce health care costs, especially among this population. When drivers check on clients daily, they can leave notes if someone is feeling ill or needs assistance in an app that goes directly to social workers at the VNA. Catching problems early, he says, helps limit more serious illness.
And as more seniors report loneliness and isolation as a result of the pandemic, Culak said, the VNA says its home delivery program serves a vital need.
“It’s the eyes on the clients,” Culak said. “The meals are important but there’s no program out there that does that.”
2,317 meals delivered
At the end of his route, Culak turned onto Obenchain Street in West Dallas, not far from the new high-rises and posh entertainment spots at Trinity Groves. Like much of the 75212 zip code, it’s a neighborhood in transition.
Margaret Chovanec, 93, Culak’s last stop, has seen it all. She’s lived in the home since the 1940s, she says, and saw every little wood-sided home on the block get built.
Today, the neighborhood is on Parkland Health and Hospital System’s list of the most underserved zip codes in the county. It has one of the lowest life expectancies in the region. A quarter of the residents live below the poverty line.
Culak had to knock twice at Chovanec’s small white house before she appeared at the door. He handed over the two bags of food and took a step back. He asked if she needed food for her cats, and said he’d bring some by later in the day. Chovanec asked about getting a ride to the bank. She needs to take a trip but her neighbors haven’t been able to help. Culak says he’ll make sure someone brings information about another VNA program.
“I’ll bring you some cat food, and I’ll bring you some info about the rideshare,” Culak said.
“OK. Thank you,” Chovanec said. “Don’t work too hard.”
Back in his car, Culak made a note on Chovanec’s account about the two requests. He went to the main menu of the driver’s app and marked that he had finished the route for the day.
The program updated a number on his screen: 123 routes completed since Culak began driving, 2,317 meals delivered.