Erie County’s senior dining adapts during pandemic to get food to oft-food-insecure population
About two dozen cars lined the parking lot of the Town of Tonawanda Senior Center on Monday morning.
One by one, masked workers handed each car five plastic containers of frozen meals that can be microwaved later. On this particular day, they also threw in an additional brown paper bag of shelf-stable food in case of a power outage or snowstorm.
“The meals are outstanding. You’d swear they're all home cooked,” said Amber Ballantyne, one of the older adults who picked up food that day, which was her 80th birthday. “And there's a really good variety. They're just great.”
Ballantyne said she'd feel safe going inside to eat — she’d assume most of the other seniors there are vaccinated against COVID-19 too — but prefers taking them to go in order to accommodate her busy lifestyle, which includes running a bag party business.
“And because I'm healthy. I drag a lot of my friends that are sick around to their doctor's appointments and that,” she said. “So I don't have time for [in-person] dining.”
Frozen meal pick-ups are just one of the ways Erie County’s Department of Senior Services has had to adapt its congregate dining program throughout the pandemic. It’s twice shut down in-person dining due to rising cases, from March to September 2020, and again from November 2020 to February 2021.
Following the second pause, it began offering frozen meals for older adults who may still not be comfortable eating inside, or who may just find eating at home more convenient. It’s given out over 94,000 of these frozen meals across nearly 30 sites since February.
Senior Services Commissioner David Shenk, who stepped down from the role last week, said the department has also done everything from signing up more older adults for home-delivered meals, to offering vouchers for take-out.
“So it was definitely a challenge,” he said. “We had to really change our service model to be able to serve our customers effectively.”
The county has served only about 81,000 meals in the congregate setting since February, well below their pre-pandemic levels of about 240,000 in-person meals a year.
That’s due to a combination of more seniors opting for frozen meals, and the fact dining sites are only operating at half capacity to account for social distancing, said James Strusienski, Senior Services assistant project director for wellness and nutrition.
“So that limits our actual participation amount per room,” he said. “Some sites, the larger sites, are not able to accommodate all of the seniors possibly who want to have a meal in that setting. So the frozen meals option is making up that difference.”
The frozen meal pickups have also served as something of a welfare check. Site workers will call seniors who don’t show up for their scheduled pickup.
Senior Services Dietician Consultant Betsy Anderson said the pickups have been especially crucial when many senior centers were closed and many older adults weren’t leaving their homes.
“The frozen meal was a great way to keep up on checking that the seniors were feeling fine or if they had any concern,” she said. “They get that when they are coming through the drive-by and also coming to the dining room or any of the programs at the center.”
Whether it’s in-person or drive-by pickups, the meal program seems to be filling a need. About 5 million older Americans, or about 7%, were food insecure in 2018, according to the most recent report by Feeding America, a national food bank network. And some worry that number has only increased since the pandemic began, especially now with food prices up 5% percent over the last 12 months, according to the Consumer Price Index.
Ballantyne said the frozen meals have certainly been helpful to her budget.
“It's nice because I don't have to go out shopping for meat anymore. It's all in there,” she said of her package of frozen meals. “I don’t have to shop for hardly anything anymore. It really helps with the grocery bills.”
The meals are free, but there is a suggested donation of $3 a meal.
“You could give up to like $15 for it, and that's for the whole week,” said 77-year-old Annette Maus, who picks up her meals from the Town of Tonwanda Senior Center site, and volunteers her time there checking other seniors into the congregate dining hall. “So I think it's really good.”
But the producer of those meals is feeling the pinch, too. The KenTon Meals on Wheels commissary cooks the frozen meals for the Kenmore-Tonawanda pickup sites. Executive Director Dan Wiles said his organization is paying more for food, but their board has decided not to raise prices for at least through 2022.
“Roast beef has gone up ... 30-35% per pound. And when you're doing all the meals we are, that's a good hit,” he said. “But it's the right thing to do.”
Some help is coming for the meal program. Senior Services recently received a $3.7 million grant in American Rescue Plan money.
Shenk said some of that money will go to paying for meals, as well as upgrading some of the dining sites.
“Many of the senior centers have aging equipment, and this grant will help us provide some opportunities for upgrades, like stoves, dishwashers, trays, tables, chairs, fire suppression, equipment, games and computers,” he said.
The $3.7 million grant, while spaced out over three years, is a large one for Senior Services, which got an allocation of $3.5 million from the county in the 2021 budget. Shenk said the pandemic helped make Washington realize these kinds of programs are crucial, especially with a rapidly aging population.
“I think what the funders came to realize is that people that do what we do have got to alter our traditional service model. Service our same demographic, but in a different environment. And I just think that they realize that's important,” he said. “And then we know that baby boomers are coming of age, and one of our goals is to try to reach the younger seniors who recently retired so that way we can bring them in. And that way they can learn about all of our services as they go through their adult years.”
Senior Services is holding a virtual public hearing at 1 p.m. Thursday to get feedback from its clients.