COA and local restaurants partner to bring comfort through food during pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, food was a hot topic for everyone. Restaurants adapted operations to serve the community’s seemingly endless appetite for carry out food. Many people flocked to restaurants for outdoor dining when restaurants began to reopen. And, DoorDash and Uber Eats became familiar household names.
But for many older adults, ordering a special meal online or from a smart phone – let alone going out to pick up carry out – was not an option.
When Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued stay-at-home orders in March, COA began hearing from older adults who were afraid to go out for groceries and other necessities. Others found themselves without their regular support network. Many who contacted COA had never before needed help.
“We learned from past emergency situations that food quickly becomes an urgent need for older adults,” said Council on Aging CEO, Suzanne Burke. “We didn’t want supply chain or staffing issues to interfere with our ability to provide meals to older adults, and we knew that they might be asked to shelter-in-place for quite a while.”
After receiving additional federal funding via the Ohio Department of Aging and the CARES Act to expand meal service to seniors during the pandemic, COA began looking for ways to adapt traditional meal programs to address not only food insecurity among older adults, but also the quality of life older adults were experiencing during the pandemic.
From the start of the pandemic through September 2020, COA delivered approximately 15,600 emergency food boxes to home-delivered meals recipients. Sites that once served congregate meals in group settings converted to drive-up or carry-out operations. And with careful coordination between COA and its network of service providers, there has been no disruption in regular home-delivered meals service for the nearly 10,000 area older adults enrolled in the program. In fact, during the pandemic, the number of older adults receiving home-delivered meals increased 42 percent over the previous year.
But as the pandemic has worn on, older adults felt increasingly isolated and forgotten. To help ease the monotony felt by many older adults, COA sought out partnerships with local restaurants to bring comfort meals to older adults – particularly low-income older adults who were isolated in senior apartment buildings across COA’s service area.
In April, LaRosa’s Pizzerias was the first local chain to partner with COA, providing spaghetti meals, meatballs and salads to older adults in COA’s service area. Then Taste of Belgium joined the effort, providing meals including chicken and waffles, omelets and biscuits and gravy.
“These are such challenging times for everyone, but especially for seniors,” said Mike LaRosa, CEO of LaRosa’s, Inc. “We’re all in this together, and that’s how we’re going to get through it. So, we were happy to do our part to help Council of Aging serve these seniors,” he said.
Partnering with local restaurants had the added benefit of helping businesses weather the economic challenges created by the pandemic.
“This is an opportunity for us to bring some people back to work and to keep the lights on at our commissary,” said Jean-François Flechet, owner of Taste of Belgium. “But more importantly, it’s an opportunity to give back and to be a part of something good that’s happening in our community.”
Soon, thank you cards, letters and voicemail messages began arriving at COA from older adults who’d received these meals. They said they’d been feeling forgotten during the pandemic and were thankful for the change of pace.
“It was a very wonderful thing you [COA] did,” Cheryl from Butler County said. “It’s nice to have something from the outside since we can’t go out.”
Heather Henry, manager of several senior apartment buildings in the region said her residents are thankful. “They have been cooped up – our common areas are closed. They’re just so appreciative – mainly that they haven’t been forgotten.”
Another property manager reported that the meals had helped her residents tremendously. “Many don’t really have a lot of assistance,” she said.
In June, Frisch’s and La Soupe, a local commissary that rescues unused food from area restaurants, began providing regular meals through the program.
Frisch’s VP of Operations, Chris Ford, said participating in COA’s meal program was a source of pride for restaurant staff. “We have a long history in this community and we felt it was important to give back and do all we can to support older adults during this time.”
As summer continued and attention shifted away from the pandemic to the demonstrations taking place across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death, COA searched for opportunities to be more inclusive in its comfort meal program by engaging small, African American owned businesses the program.
Restaurants and business owners including C&M BBQ Grille, Chef Anthony Jordan and Neal’s Famous BBQ signed on to COA’s comfort meal program during the summer, providing barbeque, grilled chicken, greens, potato salad, meatloaf and more to area older adults.
“It means a great deal to be able to serve our seniors,” said Mike Neal of Neal’s Famous BBQ. “This is an opportunity to give back to our community. Seniors deserve the best; they gave us their best throughout their lives, now it’s our turn.”
COA’s comfort meal program is a community partnership. The meals are paid for by COA via funding from a variety of sources, including the Ohio Department of Aging, CARES Act funds, grants, sponsorships and donations. COA service providers, including Meals on Wheels SWO & NKY and CASS, collect the meals from each restaurant and deliver them to senior apartment buildings across COA’s service area. Service coordinators, staff and volunteers at each building then distribute the meals to residents. From April – September 2020, nearly 34,000 comfort meals were delivered to the doors of older adults in need.
“It’s rewarding to see the impact these meals are having on older adults in our community,” Burke said. “I have been impressed with the level of teamwork, flexibility and commitment demonstrated by everyone involved in this effort – from the restaurants doing the cooking, and our providers delivering the meals, all the way down to the coordinators at each building where meals are delivered. This is work that makes you feel good. We all need that right now.”
COA and area restaurants continue to provide comfort meals and additional restaurants have joined the program, including Quatman Café in Warren County, and Beaguard’s Southern Bar B Que in Clinton County. COA received a $25,000 grant from Humana’s Bold Goal Initiative to support the program and additional organizations, including Pro Seniors, are serving as program sponsors. As of February 2021, 66,695 comfort meals have been delivered to older adults in need.