WCSC meal program a critical senior resource

(Written by Kaitlin Zinsli)

Oftentimes, it can be small-scale community efforts that make all the difference in someone’s life. That is the case when it comes to Wallingford Community Senior Center’s meal program. The lunches are not just a convenient lunch stop for people in the older population but a collective effort to address real problems of hunger and isolation in the senior community. The uniquely designed program combats these issues by encouraging active and regular attendance of meals in a friendly, social setting.

The meal program offers lunch three days a week for a suggested donation of $4 (although no one has been turned away if they can’t afford this fee). In addition to providing food and social interaction, the meal program also naturally exposes participants to the wealth of other activities offered at the Center, including exercise classes, game and movie nights, and pancake breakfasts. It provides seniors a safe place to enjoy meals, be an active part of a community, see familiar faces, and make connections.

Meal program Popular

Despite recent funding cuts, WCSC’s meal program is thriving. Volunteers and staff have seen a marked increase in attendance since revamping the program to account for decreased government funds.

The successful meal program has been around for several years and has recently gone through some difficult, but ultimately positive, changes. Earlier this year, the federal government cut its yearly funding for the program, leading to concerns that WCSC would have to start turning people away and potentially shut down the program completely. WCSC employees and volunteers refused to go down without a fight.

“We took the opportunity to grow and expand, instead of shrinking back and saying, ‘We can’t do this,’” said WCSC Program and Operations Manager Victoria Dzenis.

Instead of giving up, WCSC is moving to transform the meal program into a self-sustaining program. They altered meals by providing more options and were able to rely on volunteers, the community, and donors to keep the program not only afloat, but more successful than ever. Today there are more lunch attendees than before the funding cuts.

Ashley Larson, WCSC’s Communications and Operations Coordinator, says the changes the meal program has gone through have “definitely been positive, and people enjoy [coming] more.”

What makes the WCSC meal program special is not only that the attendees love the food. As Dzenis put it, the Center does a great job of “providing community and helping to address issues of hidden hunger and social isolation” in seniors.

In 2013, 2.9 million households with seniors experienced food insecurity (Feeding America). According to the executive director of Hunger Intervention Program, Kate Murphy, the incidence of hunger is only increasing.

“Hunger is definitely here in Seattle, and growing, just because of the economy and lack of jobs,” she said. “We had somebody come in from the Seattle Food Committee, which works with all the food banks in the area, and they were sharing that the number of people visiting food banks is up in the past year—and the people who have been visiting the food banks are visiting more frequently than they used to.”

With the intensity of hunger in Washington State increasing, that is more pressure put on the senior population when it comes to getting the food they need to survive and maintain their health.

“A lot of seniors are not working anymore, so they have a fixed income,” Murphy said. “Then they are faced with growing medical costs if they deal with different health issues as they get older, so it is definitely a very vulnerable population … And then there is the living alone that kind of changes how people cook for themselves—if they cook for themselves.”

Michael Cox, the food bank manager at FamilyWorks in Wallingford, has been working with food banks and hunger for more than 15 years.

Hunger in Seattle is “definitely a problem,” said Cox. “You are going to find pockets of hunger all over, but primarily, to be honest, a lot of hunger population tends to be concentrated toward South Seattle. And this is just the economics of living in this city.”

The increased risk of hunger among senior populations is due to the fact that it is more difficult for them to go out and get food, let alone cook it for themselves, especially in places that Cox refers to as “food deserts.”

“There is the isolation of living out in the suburbs as well—it is harder to get to a grocery store … When people have to travel two miles or so to get food, that is a food desert,” he said. “Where do you go to get fresh produce? Where do you go to get fresh protein? Eggs? Milk? You are having to buy it from 7/11 or the gas stations and hope that they have bananas or apples if you are lucky.”

Meal Program Nutrition

WCSC recently increased the fruit and vegetable offerings in its meal program as part of its effort to ensure seniors are given access to healthy meals.

Because of these increased risks for hunger and isolation, the meal program makes a positive difference for regular WCSC participants like Diane Morgan. She describes the program as “just the best!”

“It is it really nice to have a break from cooking for myself,” she said.

Morgan also enjoys the friendly, social atmosphere that the meal program provides. She is an active member of WCSC and participates in many of the Center’s programs, including exercise classes and bridge games.

Good nutrition is another key element of a successful meal program.

“Seniors are a population that are more at risk for poor nutrition. [Good nutrition] is necessary because seniors have so many health conditions,” said Cox. “They can’t just eat heavily processed food and not have an impact on their health. For people with high blood pressure, which is an endemic in the senior population, it is going to shoot blood pressure up. They need to have food that is … easy to prepare and healthy to eat.”

WCSC works hard to ensure its seniors get the proper nutrition they need to be healthy. One of the changes in the program has been the addition of more fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It’s as good as you can eat in any restaurant,” said member Gary Cluff. “They always have fruit salad with things like fresh raspberries and cantaloupe.”

Another popular way to fight hunger in the senior population is through food delivery systems. Food banks often take donated food items and deliver them to people who are hungry and in need. Although this addresses issues of hunger, it doesn’t solve the problem of isolation.

Social isolation is not the same thing as being lonely. Social isolation occurs when a person is separated from society by way of reduced contact with people and the outside world.

“Any individual from any segment of society may be socially isolated, but senior citizens are especially susceptible to the risk factors that may trigger social isolation. These include living alone, the death of family members or friends, retirement, or poor health.” (Boundless).

Isolation also goes hand in hand with inactivity, such as when someone doesn’t leave his or her house. Community center meal programs like that offered at WCSC provide people with the motivation to get out in the world, be involved, and make valuable and life-changing connections with others in the community. This is a critical role the Center provides to seniors who come in to enjoy their meals. The WCSC meal program is special because, unlike many food banks, it gives people a place to go where they can get a meal and participate.

Cluff previously attended a different community center, but he likes the meal program and the people at WCSC.

Meal Program Social

The benefits of WCSC’s meal program go beyond the food. The social environment and sense of community the lunches provide help combat the very real and serious issue of isolation that faces many seniors.

“Everyone here is more similar to me; I get along with them better,” he said.

Stan Erwin is another meal program regular. He loves the food, but his favorite part of WCSC is volunteering at programs like pancake breakfasts and movie nights.

The experience that members can get helping at the Center provides them with more activity in their lives and a way to be involved in the community. At the end of the meal, many participants help clean up each other’s dishes. They enjoy the opportunity to help the Center and the friends they have made there.

WCSC’s meal program addresses hunger and isolation issues in the senior population and is making an undeniable impact. This does not mean, however, that the program can sustain itself without the help and support of the community. Kind, dedicated volunteers are vital to the continuation of the regular weekly lunches. The meal program also needs donations from thoughtful community members who understand the importance of such a unique and impactful program. Increased community awareness is critical in ensuring the program’s success as well.

For those in the community who want to help seniors in their area, Murphy says “just being aware of the issue is really great first step. Also, checking in with the seniors you know in your life and seeing if there is anything you can do to help them.”

Cox suggests doing food drives to collect food, and to volunteer.

“We need volunteers in all kind of areas to help us; we rely greatly on them,” he said.

Murphy also suggests supporting programs by helping with advertising. Meal programs like WCSC’s “are really great opportunities for seniors to come for lunch to get food and to get that socialization and experience,” she said.

“It is important for people who are not necessarily seniors to be involved in advocacy,” she said. “A lot of these programs are supported by public funds. Those are dollars we have to ask for and make sure we continue to get.”

WCSC’s meal program not only encourages awareness but also addresses hunger and isolation in seniors by providing a safe, friendly, and healthy environment.

Dzenis put it perfectly: “Food is always about community; it’s about bringing people together.”