Local Meals on Wheels, 55 North merge — boosting senior services

Meals on Wheels Southwest OH & Northern KY and 55 North announced Dec. 15 their merger to improve services for more than 11,000 area seniors.

“Our community and country faces a crisis in aging, which was worsened by the pandemic and recent inflation,” said Jennifer Steele, Meals on Wheels Southwest OH & Northern KY president and CEO. “Seniors who receive services from each agency will benefit from a broader array of services offered by the combination of the two, and from the elegance and simplicity of a coordinated approach. The community will benefit from reduced duplication of services. Together we will make a stronger impact.”

Jennifer Steele

Founded in 1973, 55 North, formerly known as Hyde Park Center for Older Adults, annually serves more than 1,000 East-side based seniors with meals, transportation to medical appointments, health and wellness activities and supportive services related to their well-being. Meals on Wheels serves 11 counties in Ohio and Kentucky, helps 10,000 seniors and delivers more than 1 million meals annually via 32 meal options prepared in its own restaurant-grade kitchen.

This is the second merger, in as many years, by Meals on Wheels, the largest provider of home-delivered meals in the region and one of the largest Meals on Wheels in the United States. Jennifer Steele will remain CEO of Meals on Wheels and lead the combined organization, with Shelley Goering, CEO of 55 North, joining their leadership team.

In 2021, Meals on Wheels merged with Cincinnati Area Senior Services (CASS), creating one of the country’s largest community-based organizations that provides direct and critical services to seniors. That merger resulted in the organizations to grow their service to 1.4 million meals to seniors in 12 counties, as well as increased support for seniors: pet support services; transportation; shared/group meals and socialization; and a protective services program providing independent living assistance, financial case management, legal guardianship and representative payee services for the community’s most vulnerable seniors.

“This merger will enable our organizations to advocate for the needs of older adults with a unified voice,” said Dan Driehaus, chair of the Meals on Wheels board. Driehaus, formerly chair of the CASS board, also helped to lead that merger.

In 2020, Cincinnati’s Meals on Wheels received a $4 million grant from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife MacKenzie Scott, which has provided the funding for a number of innovative solutions focusing on seniors in the area.

Over the last two years, MOW has received national recognition for innovative technology and congregate meal/senior center initiatives, including the election of Jennifer Steele to the national board of Meals on Wheels America.

“Our merger with Meals on Wheels will encourage growth of services and funding by strengthening our collective ability to connect seniors in a changing world,” said Tony Fenno, chair of the 55 North board. “This joining of forces by two forward-thinking organizations will create opportunities to increase the quality of life, health, independence and choices of seniors in the communities we serve.”

55 North’s Digital Connect program provides free one-on-one tech support to seniors, as well as complimentary computer tablets and internet access for one year to those who qualify. With a calendar of online health, wellness and social programming, participants stay connected and have digital access to telehealth appointments, worship services, ordering groceries and more, all while remaining safe at home. Meals on Wheels plans to scale and expand these services.

“We are passionate about ending senior hunger and loneliness,” Steele said. “This joining of forces will allow Meals on Wheels to transform connection for seniors, and help us to innovate and win the very real fight against food insecurity and malnourishment in our community.”

For example, Kentucky ranks third in the nation in seniors threatened by hunger (marginally food insecure by USDA standards), at a staggering one in four or 25%, according to Meals on Wheels America. Kentucky also ranks first in the nation in adults aged 50-59 experiencing food insecurity, according to Feeding America, a sobering harbinger of what is to come for Kentucky’s senior population in the coming decade. Ohio ranks 10th in the nation in seniors threatened by hunger, with one in five seniors at risk.

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