The program's leadership hopes to continue an arrangement with hospitals.
WARREN -- Trumbull Mobile Meals' executive director credits two Warren hospitals with trying to save a 35-year-old program and assures patrons the service will continue.
"We would not even be here without them," Sandee Mathews said of Forum Health Trumbull Memorial Hospital and St. Joseph Health Center, which prepare meals, provide space and order supplies to help run the volunteer effort. "They give so much to this program."
The Ohio Department of Agriculture said last week that these hospitals will have to cease their long-standing arrangement with Mobile Meals, 280 High St. N.W., unless they obtain state licensing or take control of the volunteer help.
"We're kind of waiting to find out what happens next with this," Mathews said Monday. She's been with Mobile Meals for 15 years.
Mathews explained that there are 260 people served daily with hot and cold meals, including special diets. Tapping into a network of 575 to 600 volunteers, Mobile Meals uses 50 to 55 of them daily on 26 different routes, she said.
The meals are not just for the infirm, but for anyone in need. The hospitals prepare the food during the course of daily patient meal preparations and are reimbursed monthly by Mobile Meals for the cost of the food supplies only.
"It is business as usual right now. No matter what happens, Mobile Meals will be here serving the public -- no matter how we have to find a way. That's what we've been doing for 35 years," Mathews said.
The state said TMH and St. Joseph cannot meet a catering exemption, after a review of the hospitals' exemption request by its meat inspection and legal divisions.
The hospitals, the state and Mathews said, now likely will have to review whether to license or not. Mobile Meals, she stressed, would prefer to stay with the hospitals.
"We're also pleased to be involved with them," said John Gonda, Forum Health's director of marketing and public relations. "We are working very closely with Trumbull Mobile Meals and the other organizations involved to reach a resolution that is in the best interests of everyone within our community."
Mobile Meals will probably find itself looking for a new provider unless the state is in a position to award an exemption, Mathews said -- noting that finding another provider could prove difficult considering how seamlessly the operation works now and how cooperative the hospitals have been over the years.
"We are so connected to the hospitals that it's like co-joined twins," she added.
The state's position is that the law does not recognize a shared control for volunteers.
Dr. W. Michael Hockman, chief of the ODA's meat inspection division, last week stressed the state does not want to deny food to anyone in need. The hospitals either need to become licensed, become exempt, or discontinue the operation.
Becoming exempt would mean the hospitals taking control of the current Mobile Meals volunteers -- and making them hospital volunteers.
The state's position is that the hospitals are essentially a food distributor and should be licensed and inspected accordingly. Oversight of the meals changes to Mobile Meals once they leave the hospitals.
The licensing would require that the hospitals follow a systematic approach for reviewing food preparation, from the receipt of foods to their final distribution, to prevent food-borne illnesses. Licensing costs $50 for one year, and the federal government covers 50 percent of the program's cost. An inspector checks the paperwork and sanitation standards.
The hospitals instead had proposed a 16-week program of additional training for volunteers on food safety, food handling and equipment sanitation.