BURNSVILLE, Minn. — Just before 11 a.m. every Friday, Mike Oliver takes off work to helping others.
He extends his lunch break to deliver lunches for his local Meals on Wheels program in Burnsville.
"I've been volunteering with these guys for coming up two years now," Oliver said. "I started right at the beginning of COVID, when everything got shut down."
Oliver originally signed on to deliver meals just once a month, but as the pandemic went on and more people went back to work, fewer volunteers stuck around.
"The need was so great that they suckered me into doing it once a week," he said. "It turned into a blessing for me to just have that schedule, do it every week, and now it's just my new normal."
But now he, and the other remaining volunteers, are adjusting to another new normal.
"It's certainly been harder with gas prices going up," said Oliver, who drives a pickup. "It was like $120 or something for a tank of gas the other day."
Metro Meals on Wheels has been trying to find ways to lessen that burden for those volunteer drivers who are critical to its mission.
"We've tried to offer incentives like gas cards and things like that to reward them for their time and dedication," said Patrick Rowan, Executive Director for Metro Meals on Wheels. "But I think people are a little hesitant to sign on and drive for Meals on Wheels because of what gas prices are doing right now."
Rowan says every single Metro Meals on Wheels program is currently in need of drivers. But even with gas prices so high, he says many potential volunteers don't realize that most routes require just five to 10 miles of driving, and shifts are very flexible.
"I was actually most concerned about my employer being okay with it," Oliver said. "Turns out, that was not an issue at all. I think a lot of people would just be scared to ask for that type of time off, and they'd be surprised about what the reaction would be."
He also believes volunteers would be surprised if they knew the difference they can make in people's lives.
Claudia Lucas and her husband Chuck turned to Meals on Wheels after she was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease a couple years ago.
"I'm no longer able to cook and so this has been a life saver for me," Claudia Lucas said.
"It's the giving I really appreciate," Chuck said. "We can do some things for the community ourselves, but not this."
They're not alone. According to Metro Meals on Wheels, demand for meals remains up 50% since the pandemic began.
"I think the need has always been there, it's just the pandemic made it okay for people to ask for help," Rowan said. "Fortunately, up until now, we've had the volunteers and the support to meet that need."
Moving forward, they need more drivers like Oliver and more fuel to keep them going.
"We're still offering gas cards and asking folks to donate gas cards so that we can share them with volunteers," Rowan said. "We want to show them how much we appreciate the work that they're doing. We wouldn't be able to serve people in need without that support, so donating to Meals on Wheels, donating gas cards is really what is going to feed our neighbors in need."
Fortunately, Patrick says Metro Meals on Wheels has been able to lock in a lot of food orders for the year, keeping it's costs more stable. But he says you can't put a price on volunteers.
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