In late winter of 2020, the burgeoning coronavirus crisis weighed heavily on Jennifer Steele. The CEO of Meals on Wheels Southwest OH & Northern KY pondered difficult questions: What if the agency had to shut down its commercial kitchen where it prepares meals? What would happen to the thousands of senior citizens it serves? Before long, the questions became all too real.
Images courtesy of Brian Vuyancih Photography
“When the shutdown orders started to come in, and things started to get very dire, I reached out to Mike Baker on a Sunday,” Steele said. Baker is the chief impact officer for United Way of Greater Cincinnati, which counts Meals on Wheels Southwest OH and Northern KY as one of its 140 partner agencies. Within minutes, he returned Steele’s call.
Steele knew her agency needed to purchase a large quantity of shelf-stable food — much more than it had ever bought at one time. She told Baker: “We’re in a pretty tough spot right now. I’m placing an order for food that I don’t think I can pay for. Is there any way you can help us?”
By that point, recognizing that enormous challenges lay ahead for the community, United Way officials had established the COVID-19 Regional Response Fund with Greater Cincinnati Foundation. Within a two-month period in 2020, the fund distributed more than $7.2 million to more than 250 organizations, including to Steele’s agency.
After speaking with Baker, Steele said, “We had the (Regional Response Fund) money in our bank account in a couple of days. Without that, we would not have been able to respond as early as we did, no question.”
A quick response was crucial. In March, Ohio and Kentucky issued stay-at-home orders within a few days of each other. “Overnight, the demand for our services tripled,” Steele said. “Overnight, every senior became homebound. We were getting calls from seniors whose families used to bring them food and now couldn’t because they had all just lost their jobs; and from seniors who used to be able to get to the grocery store and now couldn’t compete. They used that word: ‘I can’t compete for the food when everybody is just clearing the shelves of everything.’
“We delivered as many meals in one week in the early spring as we would deliver in a typical month.”
Months later, recalling that Sunday phone call to United Way, Steele said: “Mike Baker’s responsiveness and his flexibility and his willingness to trust us really enabled us to do what we needed to do very early on at a critical time.”
Indeed, many people relied on United Way of Greater Cincinnati and its partner agencies to respond quickly to the urgent community needs of 2020. COVID has not yet been conquered. Challenges remain.
“Our demand is still double what it would normally be,” Steele said. “We’re doing everything we can to try to keep seniors at home, but also to keep them from being isolated. The challenge for us is constantly adapting and staying a step or two ahead of COVID.”
Against the backdrop of the ongoing pandemic, United Way of Greater Cincinnati remains steadfast in its commitment to assist in the region’s recovery and revitalization.