When an unprecedented heat wave bore down on Portland, Oregon, in June 2021, Jonna Papaefthimiou, the city’s chief resilience officer, immediately thought of the city’s most vulnerable populations: older people sweltering, often alone, in their homes.

She called Suzanne Washington, who runs the local chapter of Meals on Wheels. “That overlap of their demographic and the demographic that faces great risk from heat is almost identical,” Papaefthimiou says.

Over the next couple of days, Washington and a group of staff identified their most vulnerable clients, recruited volunteers, and started making calls. “We were asking, ‘Do you have a fan? Do you know this heat is coming? Are you prepared? Could you get to a cooling center? Do you know where [the nearest one] is?” Washington says.

She and her team at Meals on Wheels collected donated fans and air conditioners, which the organization’s drivers brought with them on their food-delivery routes. The team conducted wellness checks by phone and helped clients find rides to cooling centers.

Washington remembers calling a woman in her 80s who said she had just fainted, had a headache, and didn’t feel well. “We sent out help,” Washington says. “That person was in the heat-exhaustion phase and heading toward the next phase”—heatstroke, a life-threatening condition. The quick actions and persistent outreach of Portland’s local Meals on Wheels chapter most certainly saved lives.

Meals on Wheels, which originated in the United Kingdom during the Second World War, is not a climate organization—or even an emergency-response organization in the traditional sense. Rather, the program is best known for delivering hot meals to lower-income seniors.

But in recent years, as climate disasters increase in frequency and intensity, the broader mission—to “improve the health and quality of life” of the seniors Meals on Wheels programs serve—has taken on new urgency.

Climate-related disasters, like extreme heat, hurricanes, and wildfires do not affect all populations equally. If you’re Black, or poor, you’re more likely to live in an urban heat island that can get dangerously hot during a heatwave. You’re also more likely to live in a low-lying area prone to hurricane damage and flooding.

Read the full article about how food donations are related to climate relief by Danielle Renwick at YES! Magazine.