Last Supper? The Man Behind the 'Meals' | Economy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Last Supper? The Man Behind the 'Meals'


Published November 22, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 5, 2017 at 4:21 p.m.

Peter Carmolli - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Peter Carmolli

Peter Carmolli doesn't have daily interactions with the 210 customers for whom he cooks. But the 53-year-old executive director of Burlington Meals on Wheels knows their names, tastes and idiosyncrasies: the man who wants two milks; the woman who doesn't eat pork but asks for ham. The No. 1 complaint is that the vegetables are too crunchy, according to Carmolli. The second most common is that they're too soft.

On a busy morning last month, Carmolli was presiding over the preparation of macaroni and cheese in the commercial kitchen at the Cathedral Square senior housing complex. In shorts and an orange button-down shirt, he took a call from a customer inquiring about the day's menu. She had just gotten out of the hospital the night before.

"She's not dead yet," he announced with a grin to his kitchen colleagues. Carmolli has a nickname for every one of his coworkers — along with constant, good-natured teasing, it's one way he shows his affection. Head chef Mike Rooney, aka Big Mike, has worked with him for more than a decade.

Carmolli has been running Burlington Meals on Wheels for almost twice that long, during which time he has served up an estimated 2.4 million meals.

His philosophy? "Work shouldn't be drudgery," said the fun-loving, bighearted Carmolli. When older Vermonters resist the idea of accepting charity, he asks them to do him the favor of tasting and offering feedback on the food in exchange for free meals. They always agree, he said. Cathedral Square employees or residents — anyone who's hungry, for that matter — are welcome to eat in his kitchen.

But Carmolli's days doling out fruit cups are numbered. By next spring, his and 13 other Meals on Wheels operations in Chittenden, Addison, Franklin and Grand Isle counties will be consolidated. Age Well, formerly the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging, is the Essex Junction-based nonprofit that funds and oversees the four-county operation. Come spring, it will use one vendor instead of many smaller ones to feed Vermont's homebound, disabled and elderly at "nutritional risk."

  • Katie Jickling
  • Mike Rooney

Age Well had been thinking about unifying the very decentralized program for about three years in an effort to "stretch our dollars as far as they can go," according to CEO John Michael Hall. Last January, it hired a Texas consultant who visited the sites and found "pretty significant concerns" about "food safety, whether the food was being produced hygienically, how early in the day it was being prepared, what temperature it was at by the time it arrived," said Hall. "She gave us some stern advice about needing to up our game."

Burlington Meals on Wheels passed an Age Well kitchen inspection a few years back, Carmolli said, and he was told the operation was a model for others. A sign above the sink reads: "Wash your hands thoroughly and often. This isn't a Civil War era hospital."

The problem is bigger than that, according to Hall. The current system is a bureaucratic mess, onerous to oversee and manage, the CEO explained. The community organizations have different budgets, buy different food and, in the end, cook different meals. Some of those are tasty and healthy, Hall said; others, not so much.

One of the smallest, Champlain Islanders Developing Essential Resources, feeds about 30 people daily between South Hero and the far reaches of Alburgh and Isle La Motte. The largest, run by the national company Lindley Food Service, operates Meals on Wheels throughout Addison County.

Each day, the 14 organizations combine to distribute around 800 to 900 meals — and Age Well is ultimately responsible for ensuring that everyone's fed and the customers are happy. About 1,800 clients receive meals, Hall said, though not every client gets a meal every day.

Funding for such programs comes from myriad sources. Sixty percent of Age Well's $1.28 million Meals on Wheels budget is from the federal government. Vermont provides another 20 percent, while the remaining 20 percent comes from the United Way of Northwest Vermont, town governments and private donors. Clients also pay if they can, an average of about $1.25 a meal.

Hall didn't know how many local employees would lose their jobs as a result of the consolidation. But he said the changes were long overdue: Government agencies are required to put vendor contracts out to bid at least every five years, and Age Well had not reevaluated its contracts in the last 20-plus years.

Shannon B. Palmer - KATIE JICKLING
  • Katie Jickling
  • Shannon B. Palmer

"How can we reassure taxpayers and lawmakers that we are using these government funds in the wisest, most productive fashion?" Hall wrote in an email.

The meals will continue to come to the elderly, but Carmolli and his five part-time employees likely won't be making them.

Running the $450,000-a-year program has been "a labor of love" for Carmolli, as he put it. His friend Peter Crapo, who worked in the kitchen at Burlington Meals on Wheels for two years and now serves on its board, called him "an absolute genius" at stretching a tight budget and keeping customers satisfied. He remembered spending his Saturdays with Carmolli looking for deals and donations at farmers markets.

Until his kitchen closes, Carmolli said, he is trying to stay positive. That October morning, Rooney stirred the gooey entrée of the day with what looked like an oar, while Shannon B. Palmer presided over steamed carrots and broccoli. Others packed individual paper lunch bags with cold food: two slices of wheat bread, canned mandarin oranges and a carton of milk.

Then about 16 volunteers, each with his or her own designated route, showed up, picked up the packages and set out: to Burlington, South Burlington, Shelburne, Winooski and Colchester.

Clients benefit from the human contact they provide. Carmolli has, too. He offered story after story about former deliverers: Johnny "Polka" Malcovsky used to come in playing the accordion; Fernand "Red" Roberts was 90 before he stopped bringing food to "the old people"; one woman delivered until she could no longer operate a vehicle, and then staff members drove her around to see the clients. Carmolli nicknamed her "Miss Daisy."