Meals on Wheels Northeastern Illinois plans to build new kitchen, grow


Molly Lubbers/The Daily Northwestern

Sam Landman, food service director of Meals on Wheels Northeastern Illinois, works at his desk. Meals on Wheels plans to build a new kitchen and expand to more clients this year.

Max Lubbers, Assistant City Editor

Meals on Wheels Northeastern Illinois plans to build a kitchen in its new location after a 2019 move, expanding its capacity to produce meals in greater quantity and quality, Executive Director Debi Genthe said.

Having operated for 51 years, the organization, previously called “Meals at Home,” currently delivers meals to 250 homebound clients in Evanston, Skokie and surrounding northern areas annually, Genthe said. Last year, it moved from an office space on Emerson Street to 1723 Simpson St.

“The big thing is just to serve more people,” Genthe said. “I think this location itself has the ability to do a lot in terms of community.”

Right now, Evanston hospitals, restaurants, and assisted living facilities supply the food that Meals on Wheels brings to clients. When the new kitchen is installed, Food Service Director Sam Landman will lead trained volunteers in cooking the majority of food served.

“It’s going to be more like home-cooking here, something that they would make for themselves if they were capable,” he said. “Then also healthier foods as well, with health being the key factor for older adults.”

He added that he creates nutritious meals tailored to seniors’ changing tastes, since many clients are older. For more specific, medically-prescribed diet foods, Meals on Wheels will split production with Evanston hospitals, Genthe said.

Another planned change will allow clients to choose between two options for both the hot and cold meal delivered each day, according to Genthe. Additionally, Landman said he will practice “just-in-time cooking,” meaning he will prepare the meals immediately preceding packaging and delivery.

As he creates the menu, Landman said he wants to incorporate more “culturally diverse” and trending foods, along with meals similar to those Meals on Wheels previously provided.

“It gets me really excited when I get to introduce older adults to foods that they aren’t used to or haven’t tried before, and they say, ‘Wow, I never would have thought of eating that before, but thank you,” he said. “That’s really satisfying.”

Meals on Wheels is still delivering meals as it awaits renovations and the new kitchen. The Chicago Tribune reported the city has approved its permits, but Genthe said they are waiting for the general contractors to finish working with the city before they begin building.

Volunteer Coordinator Matti Moran said as Meals on Wheels will need more volunteers to support its growth. The application process involves background checks and training.

Moran said volunteers are the “eyes and ears” of the organization.

“We’re more than a meal — that’s part of our mission,” she said. “Many of our volunteers deliver on a weekly basis, so they get to know the clients pretty well. A lot of times they just update us on certain things. It’s a way of making sure our clients are okay.”

Moran said they are testing software called ServTracker that will allow volunteers to track if a meal is delivered, and if not, why. Installed on iPads that drivers can bring along the route, the program also lets them alert leadership if there is a problem with a client.

Genthe said in the past, volunteers have helped clients who needed 911 calls or let Meals on Wheels know if something didn’t seem right.

“Many times the volunteer will be the only person who will see a client the whole day,” Moran said. “Those relationships are very meaningful to us and to our volunteers.”

As the transition approaches, Meals on Wheels also continues to raise funds. Development Director Claress Pettengill said Meals on Wheels has raised about $450,000 of the $500,000 it set as its goal last July.

Meals on Wheels wants to raise beyond the $50,000 remaining to cover peripheral expenses, make the space “cutting edge,” and create long-term sustainability, Pettengill said.

Pettengill said Meals on Wheels is on the threshold of something “really huge” with the new kitchen’s construction.

“We are making sure that we have our mission and our program reach to the whole communities, so that they are aware we are here,” Pettengill said, “that we are creating an impact, that we are transforming lives every day.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the year Meals on Wheels Northeastern Illinois moved its locations. The organization moved in 2019 to its Simpson Street location. The Daily regrets the error.

Email: [email protected]