More than a meal: The Senior Nutrition Program dishes up food, companionship

By: Michelle Miller-Carl, Journal News Editor
-A +A
Editor’s note: This is part one of a story about Meals on Wheels. Today, learn who makes the food and how the program works. Jeanne Ross may provide a hot meal for seniors every Tuesday, but it’s her smile they really crave. Ross is a volunteer driver with Meals on Wheels, the delivery service that provides food to homebound seniors as part of Placer County’s Senior Nutrition Program. Although a healthy lunch for local seniors is the goal, volunteers end up providing much more than a meal. “It’s not unusual for drivers to deliver wood when someone needs it or mow a lawn, clean up yards and trim bushes because people can’t do it themselves,” said Brenda Cathey, Meals on Wheels coordinator. Cathey said when she signs up seniors for the program, some don’t have anyone to list as an emergency contact. “Many have no one,” Cathey said. “Sometimes, the Meals on Wheels driver is the only person they see all day.” Meals on Wheels starts in the kitchen inside the Multipurpose Senior Center in Auburn. Food for 350 to 400 seniors is made there Monday through Friday. From the Auburn kitchen, meals are delivered to nine Senior Café sites in the county, where seniors who still drive can come enjoy a meal and company. Meals on Wheels drivers then pick up the food from the café sites and deliver them to homebound seniors. “It’s like a wheel,” Cathey said. “The hub is this kitchen and then there’s all the different spokes.” There are seven Meals on Wheels routes in Auburn and a total of 22 throughout the county. The program relies on 110 volunteer drivers each week to work these routes. But when a driver isn’t available, Cathey often has to scramble to fill the spot, or else seniors might go hungry. “I think there was one hour last Friday where every route had a permanent driver, then someone fell and broke their hip,” Cathey said. “Life happens, that’s why we’re always looking for substitute drivers.” The Senior Nutrition Program is funded by the Area 4 Agency on Aging, as well as grants and donations. The program has an annual budget of around $240,000. Around $25,000 of the annual budget goes to reimbursing mileage for drivers, who get 44 cents per mile, Cathey said. But when the state’s budget is tied up by lawmakers in Sacramento, dozens of programs including the Senior Nutrition Program hold their breath. “The budget crisis is really putting a pinch on us,” Cathey said. “We’re not buying any (non-essential) supplies because we don’t know when the money is going to come in. We’re asking vendors if they’ll consider allowing partial payments.” Some Meals on Wheels programs have had to cut the number of hot meals they deliver each week to curb costs. The program doesn’t have savings to help weather the budget delay, Cathey said, so donations become increasingly important. “You think about what a person spends at Starbuck’s – that can feed a senior every day,” she said. So what are these seniors eating? How about stuffed bell pepers with cheddar topping, chicken cacciatore and sesame ginger chicken. These are just a few of the menu offerings for the Senior Nutrition Program. The woman behind the menu is Susan Walsh, food service manager. Each meal consists of a portion of meat, vegetable, fruit, milk and a bread or grain item. Walsh figures out the nutritional value of each meal, making sure sodium is under 1,000 miligrams per meal and that each meal has 25 mg of Vitamin C, for instance. The meals are probably more balanced than what a senior would eat on his own, Walsh said. “My guess would be (they’re eating) canned soups and TV dinners, which are astronomically high in sodium,” she said. Food is purchased for the program and also donated by Safeway and Raley’s in Auburn, which provides loafs of bread and day-old pastries, and even the occasional birthday cake. But increases in food costs have affected the program. An order of frozen vegetables that used to run $10 might cost up to $15 now, Walsh said. That combined with increased fuel costs forced the program to up their suggested donation amount from $2.50 to $3 recently. One way the program saves money is by having inmates at the Placer County Jail prepare the food. Tom Wurm, 50, is one inmate who has been working at the Senior Nutrition Center for a few months. He helps pack food and then assemble coolers and trays for the volunteer drivers. Taking a break to eat some of the French toast and sausage on the day’s breakfast-themed menu — it’s much better than the food they serve in jail, he notes — Wurm says he got lucky to work in the program. “The people are nice and it’s a good cause,” he said. “It’s rewarding to pay back the community, given my situation.” Wurm sports an apron with “#1 Grandpa” (he’s not a grandpa – just the oldest guy in the kitchen), and the back of his shirt is marked “PCSO Inmate Worker.” He works fast to scoop hash brown potatoes into trays bound for seniors’ homes. “You’d think he’s getting paid he enjoys this so much,” said James Edelman, kitchen manager at the Senior Nutrition Center. For more on what happens on a Meals on Wheels route, see Sunday’s paper and online edition. The Journal’s Michelle Miller-Carl can be reached at ————— Read part two about what happens on a Meals on Wheels route