It is a decade since Doncaster’s meals on wheels service passed into private hands.
Darren Burke went out and about with the Park Care Meals team on their rounds - and discoverred hoe the service can change lives.
“IT is more than just a meals on wheels service, it’s a lifeline,” says delivery driver Claire Cartwright.
Over the past few years, Claire, and the rest of her colleagues from Park Care Meals have been bringing a daily dose of sunshine to elderly and ill people all over South Yorkshire, serving up hundreds of piping hot meals to grateful clients.
It is now ten years since the firm took over the running of the 365 days a year delivery drive from Doncaster Council - and in that time countless lives have been transformed with little more than a pre-packed and pre-heated meal of bangers and mash.
“People are so grateful for what we do for them,” added Claire. “Sometimes we’re the only contact they have in a day - and we’re treated like family. I am on first name terms and have made some really good friends. Nothing is too much trouble for me to help our customers.”
Each and every day, no matter what the weather, hundreds of meals are sent out to homes all over Doncaster and across South Yorkshire with Sheffield, Barnsley and Rotherham all part of Park Care’s growing empire.
It’s all a far cry from the early days back in 1995 when director Rik Shipley’s parents were running a care home - and realised a helping hand could be transformed into a lucrative business.
“It started out with them cooking meals for the care home. Then they started doing a few extra dinners for people living on the street,” he said.
“Then word spread and more and more people across Barnsley started asking for dinners.”
The idea snowballed and soon the family had bought out an old pub, converted the kitchens and turned their sideline into a full-time business, gradually branching out across South Yorkshire, heralding their arrival in Doncaster back in 2002.
Added Rik: “Doncaster Council alerted us to the fact that they were stopping their service and asked us if we’d like to take over. We didn’t hesitate and they finished one day and we started the next.
“Most people didn’t even notice the change over.”
Since then, the service has gone from strength to strength and now more than 125 meals a day are delivered to the firm’s premises in Balby where they are heated up, placed in thermal boxes and then shipped in a fleet of vehicles to all corners of the borough.
“There is absolutely nothing for the customer to do,” added Claire. “We deliver it right to their door, it’s ready to eat and we will plate it up for them if they want us to. We’ll do anything we can to make it easier for people.”
And that dedication goes far and beyond the call of duty.
“We never miss a delivery,” she said.
“Even when we had all the heavy snow, every single meal got through. We had to abandon vehicles and walk through the snow but we made sure everyone got their dinner.
“I have walked miles sometimes making sure the food gets there.”
Manager Trevor Boswell, a former HGV driver, says the job is the best he has ever done.
“There’s so much satisfaction in what we do,” he said. “We don’t just drop the meal and go, we check people are OK, make them a cup of tea or contact relatives if customers aren’t too well and we are concerned about them.”
Assistant manager Claire, 36, has even escorted her customers to hospital before - and on one occasion even helped apprehend a burglar she spotted making off from a neighbouring house of one of her customers, clutching a handbag. “I chased after him and had to go to court and everything,” she said. “But to me, that’s all part of the service.”
However, she admits that in the early days, her map-reading skills sometimes let her down. “I can’t really read a map to save my life,” she joked.
“When I first started, I was getting lost all the time and ending up in totally the wrong place. But now I know the routes like the back of my hand - I know every street there is to know in Bentley!,” she laughed.
Needless to say, some of those she delivers to can sometimes be a bit of a handful - but she says it’s all part and parcel of a job that she loves.
“One really fancied me and tried it on,” she laughs. “But I like a laugh and a joke with everyone and they are a wonderful bunch of people. We’re on first name terms and a lot of them see us as family. I know lots of drivers swap birthday and Christmas cards too. Everyone works together and we’re like one big happy family.”
And there’s no-one happier than those who take delivery of a wide range of meals each day.
Intake’s Jim Oxley, 62, is one satisfied customer who has been using the service virtually since day one.
He said: “I can’t cook, so it’s ideal for me. I can pick exactly what I want from the menu - there’s everything you can think of and the food is excellent.
“I’ve got no complaints - I look forward to my dinner coming and chatting to the delivery drivers too.”
It’s the same story over at Bentley where former miner Cyril Marshall, 89, can often be found waiting at his front gate for the arrival of the Park Care vehicle.
He said: “They are always on time and I look forward to having a bit of a joke when they get here. For me, you can’t beat beef stew following by rice pudding. That’s my all-time favourite.”
Claire admits that sometimes there are grumbles. “They sometimes complain if we are just a few seconds late, but on the whole, people are pretty good.”
Rik says the service helps ensure some of society’s most vulnerable people get a hot meal inside them each day - and relatives are grateful that there is someone out there looking after the well-being of their sometimes frail family members.
“A lot of elderly people find it a struggle to cook, or simply don’t eat the right kind of things,” he added. “We do the cooking for them and also provide in what some cases can be vital company. It is a hugely satisfying and rewarding industry and we feel we are making a difference to people’s lives.”
No one has had as many dinners as this!
PARK Care Meals serves up to 125 to 140 meals a day from its base at Kelham Street industrial estate in Balby - with more than 450 piping hot dinners being dished up on a daily basis across South Yorkshire - and that’s a staggering 164,250 meals a year.
Customers can choose from a wide variety of foods - there are 40 different menu choices - varying from traditional dinners to more contemporary cuisine to suit all palates.
Dishes include roast beef and vegetables, liver and sausage, fish in parsley sauce, chicken and ham pie and tomato pasta while the mouthwatering range of puddings includes rice pudding, ginger sponge, apple pie, rhubarb crumble and fruit jelly.
The menu runs on a four week rota basis - so there’s no problem when it comes to choice.
Delivery rounds are split into seven different areas across Doncaster - and there’s no restriction at all on who can order meals.
“You don’t have to be elderly or unwell,” said director Rik Shipley. “The service is open to absolutely anyone who wants to use it. They can ring up one day and we can start delivering the next - it’s that simple,” he said.
A team of 12 drivers are on hand to ensure meals are served up ready to eat on delivery with food being delivered between 11.30am and 1.30pm each day, 365 days a year. Customers can also order sandwiches and snacks for tea.
For more details contact 01302 365365.