Rochester, Minn. — Each day workers at the Middle East Center in Rochester fill styrofoam containers with food for the Somali Meals on Wheels program. Each meal is a careful balance of protein, starch, fruits and vegetables. It's different from the standard Meals on Wheels program. The meals served up at the tiny restaurant feature tastes and textures familiar to the Somali palate. Aisha Kassim is an Olmsted County social worker in charge of the program. She's also a Somali refugee. Kassim says the spaghetti and chicken served up for the noon meal don't look distinctly African.
"Maybe the difference is in the sauce," Kassim explains. "We use spices that we put in the sauce and maybe the taste is different."
Those spices include garlic, cumin, curry powder and tandoori masala. Kassim helps load four containers of food into a big blue cooler. She waves farewell to a cluster of old men drinking coffee at the front of the restaurant. Then she's off to make deliveries.
The first stop is an apartment complex north of downtown.
A 69-year-old Somali named Abdullahi Mudey lives in a spare basement apartment. He moved to Rochester two years ago from Nairobi. Mudey says before the meals and wheels program he often went hungry.
"He says it was really difficult. Before he started the meals, we came and found him and he told us he hadn't eaten in two days. He was so weak and no family support and it was difficult for him to get up and cook," says Kassim.
Kassim quickly realized Mudey was not the only Somali in this position and that was the beginning of the Meals on Wheels program. Now Mudey is one of roughly half a dozen elderly Somali's who benefit from a regular daily meal. The number is expected to grow thanks to the areas expanding Somali population.
Other communities have adopted similar ethnic offshoots like Meal on Wheels that cater to Hmong, but so far Olmsted County seems to be alone in offering a Somali meal.
Meals on Wheels is about more than food. It's also about getting people the help they need. Kassim says after she convinced Mudey to enroll in the program, he quickly signed up for other social services.
"He's getting help vacuuming his home, cleaning the beds, cleaning and helping him bathe and also getting help with his laundry," says Kassim. Kassim gets Mudey a glass of water, a fork and knife, arranging everything carefully at tiny kitchen table. Then she says goodbye. She needs to go drop off meals to the programs other recipients.
Outside his apartment, Kassim says she's amazed by the growing number of Somali's in her caseload. She says the number has jumped since she started out as an Olmsted County social worker last April. At first she had three Somali clients, now she has many more.
"It's easier for them to call me and get answers. They don't need to go and look for an interpreter. It's easier for them to call me and get the answer right away," explains Kassim.
Kassim says her client's willingness to accept help from the government reveals signs of a major culture shift.
"In Somalia my people here never would have needed these kinds of services if they were in Somalia," says Kassim. "It's very shameful that your father or mother depends on the public to help instead of you."
Kassim shrugs and says life in America is different. With that she heads off to make more lunchtime deliveries.
Olmsted County officials say once the Somali Meals on Wheels program really gets rolling, they hope to bring warm noontime meals to other ethnic groups.