In mid-March, Mohave Electric Cooperative member Anita Gill quit her full-time job of 14 years as a sales executive to focus solely on her business, Javalina’s Coffee Express. But when the COVID-19 pandemic cut her operations to drive-thru only, Gill, like so many restaurant owners throughout the country, had to scramble to readjust.
The Fort Mohave, Arizona, resident, is teaming with MEC Chief Financial Officer Ardie Lauxman to retool the gourmet coffee and smoothie spot into a community kitchen for preparing and delivering free home-cooked meals to housebound seniors three days a week. Lauxman coordinates community donations of food and supplies; Gill handles the cooking and kitchen operations.
“COVID-19 is color blind, money blind, gender blind. In order to live, it has to spread. We care about our community! So just stay home,” Gill wrote on a local Rotary Club’s Facebook page.
The initiative in the Bullhead City, Arizona, co-op’s service territory has underscored the depths of need among the elderly and other vulnerable populations in this retirement community. During the first full week of operations, deliveries climbed from 75 meals on the first day to 350 the second day and finally up to 600—leading organizers to set up a waiting list.
“The elderly are scared. You see them out first thing in the morning at the stores, and they stay in. And those with compromised health are not even able to get out, period,” said Lauxman. “While we’re not requiring people to show proof of need, we are busting at the seams now that the stay-at-home order is in place.”
MEC is one of several co-ops teaming with restaurants to provide vulnerable residents with nutritious meals—and sometimes even helping support the businesses themselves.
“Community support right now is more important than ever,” said Angela Griffin, vice president of utility services at Paris, Illinois-based EnerStar Electric Cooperative, which is treating the public to drive-thru sack lunches at local restaurants that have closed because of the pandemic.
All 120 sack lunches were gone in 30 minutes during the first drive-thru March 28 at Millcreek Restaurant in Clarksville, and organizers were expecting similar demand the following weekend.
“I asked [EnerStar CEO] Mike Clark, ‘how will I know if someone’s a member?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. Give everyone a sack.’ It shows the co-op really cares,” said Pat Rhoades, who runs the family-owned restaurant with her daughter, Jeanenna Sanders.
In Fort Mohave, Lauxman and Gill’s previous community involvement helped jump-start the initiative. Both belong to the local Rotary Club, and Lauxman sits on boards of a local hospital and a fire district. Initial referrals, donations and manpower came from hospices, restaurants and service organizations. Now, most referrals go through the local Rotary Club’s Facebook page, and donations and volunteers to deliver meals come from all over.
“If there’s something positive going on in the community, it usually has [Lauxman’s] signature on it,” said Gill.
The initiative has galvanized residents and businesses wanting to help. A casino near the Arizona-Nevada border donated a pallet of personal hygiene items. Chafing dishes and bags to hold the meals came from the co-op, and refrigeration facilities are at a nearby athletic field house. High school athletes, whose seasons were cut short, volunteer to drop off meals.
“We have a significant body of volunteers willing to step forward…but we need greater capacity,” said Lauxman, adding that he’s seeking outside funding for food supplies.
At both projects, volunteers follow careful sanitization and social distancing procedures for preparation and distribution. For MEC, that includes leaving meals outside recipients’ front doors. EnerStar enlists board members to wear gloves and carry meals to recipients’ cars when the restaurant lacks a drive-thru window.
By engaging in the seventh cooperative principle of commitment to community, co-ops are helping ease the fear and isolation wrought by the pandemic—and performing a public service at the same time.
Lauxman is grateful that MEC has given him leeway to work on the initiative. “I’m either at home, making up my work time, or volunteering with this project,” he said. “It’s a need for our members and they understand that at times like this we need flexibility.”
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.
See NRECA’s COVID-19 hub on cooperative.com for key resources for co-ops, including guidance on business continuity planning and communication, as well as event schedule changes.