Gravel crunches under the van's tires as it heads up the driveway to a blue house set back from the road, woodsmoke curling above the roof.
Hartley Frank opens the door to his Lunenburg County home, eyes crinkling behind large glasses as he smiles at the VON staff member holding his Meals on Wheels delivery.
Frank, 95, might not be able to see very well, but the Air Force veteran doesn't let that stop him from walking 1.5 kilometres a day throughout the woods on his land in Maplewood.
But cooking healthy meals for himself is a struggle, Frank said, which is why the deliveries every two weeks make such a difference. Without them, he's usually in for a surprise.
"It's kind of awkward when you can't see ... you don't know really what you're cooking until you taste it," Frank said with a laugh.
The number of people like Frank relying on VON programs for meals or transportation has spiked in Nova Scotia since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Kathy Thomas, program co-ordinator for community support services with VON Lunenburg, said those who had friends and family dropping in to help cook meals or offer support weren't able to do so for months.
The program's meals have also become more affordable in recent years — an entree costs $5 —thanks to funds from the United Way and government, meaning more people have signed up for deliveries.
Thomas said VON Lunenburg has about 200 clients active in the Meals on Wheels program. Since the number of orders varies, the program usually delivers about 700 meals a month to roughly 40 clients.
Across the province, VON said it delivers about 10,600 meals monthly — a major increase from 2019 when it was providing about 2,000 per month.
Thomas said it's always been a struggle to keep enough volunteers, but the increased demand means more pressure on staff than ever before.
The Lunenburg site has never had a dedicated Meals on Wheels volunteer driver, so the job often falls to Thomas. Other times, volunteers with VON's transportation program deliver meals between appointments.
"It would be very helpful to have someone that I know will be there ... to deliver the meals that are ordered for that week and to form that relationship with the clients," Thomas said.
That human connection is especially important for people living alone in rural areas, Thomas said, who might not see anyone else that week besides someone with VON.
"It means a lot, because I'm living here alone and to see somebody once in a while — it's good company. I like to have a little company," Frank said.
By helping people stay safe and healthy with the meals program, Thomas said older people can stay in their homes longer and be more independent. It also gives family and caregivers "ease of mind," she said.
She added that all 11 VON sites, from Yarmouth to Sydney, are in need of Meals on Wheels drivers. The program is now in its 18th year.
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