Going Green in Mercer County with Meals on Wheels

By Joanne Mullowney

Most overviews covering the current state of recycling in the United States are pretty grim.  From the lack of markets and escalating costs, to contamination, to the prevalence of materials in our everyday lives that need to be recycled;  the effort to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” the mass of potential recyclables in our trash is not one of our proudest achievements.  And, getting most of the public to recognize the extent of the crisis and make the changes needed to both their consumption (think bottled water) and recycling habits has not been overly successful.  That is why we are delighted to highlight the work of local non-profit Meals on Wheels of Mercer County (MOWMC) in making changes to their operations during 2019 that significantly reduce their non-recyclable output.  Their willingness to take the initiative in finding ways to reduce their reliance on single-use plastic bags is a success story of which they can be justly proud.

I sat down with Meals on Wheels Chief Executive Officer Sasa Olessi Montaño last week to learn more about their efforts to reduce the use of plastic in their operations.  Meals on Wheels of Mercer County is a local non-profit that provides daily, home-delivered meals to individuals who are homebound, and are unable to shop or prepare meals for themselves. These “meals-on-wheels” are delivered by volunteers five days per week and may include weekend meals. The meals are prepared at Rider University and up to two meals per day are available to participants.  This process necessitates a lot of packaging.

“In late 2019,” Olessi Montaño shared, “Meals on Wheels switched from using single-use plastic bags for meal deliveries to reusable shopping bags.  With over 250 deliveries each day, what seems like a small change will save an estimated 60,000 bags from going into landfills each year.”  In addition, MOWMC has been making changes to its operations over the past years to become more sustainable.  The organization now serves the entrees and salads in eco-friendly, compostable containers made from natural fibers.  The cold drinks such as milk and juice are served in recyclable containers.  No utensils or straws are dispensed.

There is one last piece in the meals that MOWMC staff are working to resolve.  State regulations require a programmatic safeguard of keeping the hot and cold items separated.  Cold items are currently placed in separate small white plastic bags.  Since condensation from the cold items could dissolve paper bags, greening this aspect of the operation remains to be worked out and is under discussion with the caterer.

The decision to jettison the plastic bags also involved weighing the environmental benefits with the needs of both the volunteers and the program participants.  Participants generally fall into three categories: those who are fully functional and able to carry both the hot and the cold portions of the delivery from the door to their interiors without assistance; those who use walkers when coming to the door and are thus unable to transport their meal to the kitchen without bags; and those who allow the Meals on Wheels volunteer to carry their meals indoors for them.  Volunteers were asked to identify the second type of participant throughout the delivery routes and those participants were given extra reusable bags to keep and hang on their walkers to transport their food deliveries from the door.

Most volunteers (over 90%) were very pleased that MOWMC was making a very positive environmental change and some 40% said that they had abandoned using the plastic bags for quite some time on their own.   Others are gradually coming on board with the need for the change.  The program participants also embraced the change without difficulty. CEO Olessi Montaño said that she was very pleased with the success of the adoption of the new procedures and the donation of reusable bags from Ewing ShopRite and Whole Foods in Princeton that helped make it possible, commenting that “Mercer County is a very giving community and that both businesses are great neighbors and community partners.”

We are delighted with the positive changes in their operations that Meals on Wheels has embraced.  Not only do they make a difference daily to the lives of their program participants, but they are also contributing positive environmental changes to our little section of the planet while accomplishing their mission.  A positive and heartening lesson for us all!

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