HAMMOND — Early on the morning of March 30, a fleet of white minibuses spread out from the Tangipahoa Parish Council on Aging Center.

Drivers were heading throughout the parish to deliver two weeks of food to the senior citizens who could no longer attend the five centers in the parish.

Patrons normally receive two hot meals on weekdays when visiting the centers throughout the year. With the threat of the coronavirus prohibiting the gathering of more than just a few people, the centers had all been closed days before the latest effort to feed them was launched.

Staff from the Tangipahoa Voluntary Council on Aging, under the direction of Executive Director Debbie Fleming, spent the week before delivery planning and filling bags from the more than 2,000 items to be delivered.

Hammond Center director Beverly Brazil said each senior resident registered with the centers was presented with two bags: one filled with two weeks worth of shelf-stable food items and the other with a variety of food and drinks. Included in the large bags were canned macaroni and cheese, lasagna, chili, red beans and rice, beef stew, a variety of juices, crackers, apple sauce, cookies, packs of cocoa, fruit cups and other edibles.

The centers in Ponchatoula, Amite, Independence and Kentwood along with Hammond maintain a record of all who register at the centers, so the staff knew where to find the homes of the recipients of the food packages.

The distribution to the about 250 singled for the March 30 delivery is just part of the effort being put forth to feed senior residents. Five-day frozen food packages sent to the people who cannot leave their homes to eat at the centers has continued daily. The Council on Aging is feeding hundreds through personal delivery.

The recent distribution was just the start of a long-range plan to keep providing meals as long as the coronavirus threat continues. Brazil said a second food distribution was held April 13.

“We are not going to let our people go hungry,” Brazil said. 

Brazil said the workers and the patrons miss each other and the companionship.

“The isolation and the loneliness are compounded by fear of this disease," she said. "To assure our patrons that they are not alone during this time of crisis, we call every one of them every day to check up on them and to assure that they are safe and that their basic needs are being met. We are trying our best to make their lives seem normal during these times when nothing seems normal."

Brazil added that some of the seniors have started calling the friends they have met at the centers to stay connected.

Center staff member Sheila Anthony said the participants get more than just food from their visits.

“When our senior citizens arrive at the centers, they are given the opportunity to participate in special exercise classes, arts and crafts sessions, computer classes and access to the internet, games, and the special things that we do for them. They also have each other … the friendships made here are very special. As long as the centers are closed, they have no place to go to spend quality time like they have at the centers,” Anthony said.

Anthony and other staff members at the Hammond center said holidays are always a festive time and that their clients appreciate the special treats and meals connected to the holidays.

“We had just finished spending a lot of time decorating for Easter, and we were so pleased at the great decorations we placed all over the center. It’s sad, our dear people will not be able to enjoy what we have done," she said. "They always look forward to the changing of the seasons and the various holidays. This year, Easter was obviously be different. Just before Easter, we would have had an Easter egg hunt and an Easter hat contest that our people really enjoyed.”

Besides providing what Brazil called congregate meals at the centers, Council on Aging centers also provide other services, including transportation to medical appointments and pharmacies. Brazil said transportation is still being provided but on a limited basis. Only one person can be transported at a time, and that person’s temperature must be taken before entering a bus for transportation.

Brazil said signing up recipients for assistance through the Council on Aging has become difficult because the centers are closed.

“We have to meet clients on a one-to-one basis, and that has just not been possible with the new measures we have to observe to help stop the spread of the virus,” she said.

In addition to food items, the center is coordinating the distribution of hand sanitizers, detergent, paper towels and other such items. Members of the Hammond Rotary Club have gathered donations of those items for the Council on Aging to distribute.

“We are facing a challenge like we have never faced before, but we will get through this. Our main focus is to assure that the special people we are called to serve, the elderly, are well fed and cared for. The staff has worked hard to assure that our very special people are given the best that we have to offer. We will keep at it until all of this passes,” Brazil said.