TORRINGTON – “What’s your favorite meal here?” Bob Blancato asked a table of six senior citizens.
The fish. The turkey, they called out.
“I’m gonna tell you what the answer was when I asked the same question in Fort Wayne, Indiana,” Blancato paused. “Liver and onions.”
Everyone at the table groaned.
Blancato is the executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs in Washington, D.C. He visited the Goshen County Senior Friendship Center on Aug. 22 to speak with many of the residents eating lunch.
Their meals are funded in part through the Older Americans Act, a federal law enacted in 1965 to ensure access to health care, employment opportunities, and adequate income for senior citizens.
But a key feature of the OAA is its funding for senior nutrition. The legislation establishes five-day-per-week meal programs that not only provide a hot meal and information about nutrition, but promote socialization among older adults.
“The last piece, nobody’s really ever looked at to see what older people think about the importance of that,” Blancato said. “So we said we’re going to take this on and try to gather some information so that we could share it with Congress.”
Joining Blancato was Dianne Kirkbride, a field representative for Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). Enzi is the chair of the Senate subcommittee responsible for writing a new authorization of the law this year. Blancato has traveled to 12 states to interview seniors during lunches like this - which the law refers to as “congregate nutrition services.”
Ninety-five percent of them, he explained, say that socialization is what matters to them.
“I was sitting at this table and I see this one woman who I know is the ringleader,” Blancato recalled. “I said, ‘ma’am, before I run to the other table, I know you have a role here. You haven’t said a word. What is the main reason you come here?’”
She replied, “I come here to gossip.”
A 2017 study prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that seniors who participated in congregate meals generally had lower instances of depression than nonparticipants.
“There is a lot of people that probably wouldn’t have one good meal a day if they couldn’t come here. Especially people living alone,” Galen Alexander, 79, said.
“I’m interested because a lot of times the food is the second thing that you hear about,” Blancato said as he and Kirkbride surveyed a table of seniors. “Most people say they come here because of the socialization and the chance to be with other people.”
“Everything. All of the above,” Alexander said.
Attendees praised the food options, including fruits and vegetables. They noted the ease of coming in for meals, rather than buying and preparing food on their own.
The Goshen center serves an average of 175 meals per week, five days per week. The federal government funds approximately $2.96 per meal at the Goshen site, with the state contributing $0.20. However, each meal costs $8, meaning fundraising and donations are crucial. Many of the seniors pay the $3 suggested donation, but the program does not turn away those who cannot.
Wyoming receives $1.6 million in state and federal funding for senior nutrition programs, with at least 35 sites providing meals. (Home-delivered meals are also part of OAA services.) Nearly 627,000 meals went to Wyoming seniors last year. Nationally, half of the congregate participants live alone and 57 percent are older than 75.
“They’re eligible at age 60,” said the center’s executive director, Linda Crockett. “We’re having a lot more in that 60 to 65 range than we’ve had before.”
The demographics appeared to surprise Blancato.
“The age variation is different here than I’ve seen in a lot of programs. You’ve got a lot of younger older adults here,” he said, looking around the table of senior citizens.
He wasn’t simply being polite. After the cafeteria cleared, he reiterated how atypical he found the age range.
“The buzz when you walk in that room is unusual. A lot of times you go into these places and it’s like whispering conversations. There’s no interaction of people.”
Blancato added that the Goshen participants were more complimentary of the food quality than he found elsewhere.
“Usually socialization wins out over food. Not here. They talk about the nutritional value of things.”
Crockett said that the center attempts to integrate socialization seamlessly into the operations.
“We have a dining room assistant. She checks on them to make sure they’re not alone,” she said. “When I can, I eat lunch out here. I’m always gravitating to people who are sitting alone or people I don’t recognize.
“You might see somebody sitting alone for a little bit, but as they get more comfortable, you’ll see them moving to different tables.”
Crockett said the seniors know that the federal government partially funds the program. When asked if they had ever contacted their senators or representative about it, one table shook their heads.
“We should have, but we haven’t,” said Linda Ringle.
“If they decided they were going to stop the program,” added Dan Ringle, “they’d hear from all of us.”
At the end of the lunch hour, Kirkbride held a stack of paper plates. Each one had the printed words “The Older Americans Act nutrition program is important to me because…” with blank space underneath. The seniors had written down their responses for Kirkbride to show to Enzi.
Good food. Nutritional. Affordable. Those were the frequent testimonials.
In purple marker, one person had written, “I eat as much as I can because I have needs to eat safely because of diabetes. I also need to be among others as I live alone. I feel we are so blessed with the senior center support.”
“I just love it,” Kirkbride said.