The cafeteria is filled with chatter as people gather and take their usual seats before lunch. The residents of Belle Tower Apartments are socializing as they await a meal they look forward to and rely on.
Belle Tower, located at 631 Woodlawn Ave. in Hamilton, OH, offers government subsidized housing for older adults and people with disabilities. Recently, Council on Aging (COA) began providing a free congregate meal for all Belle Tower residents. On a daily basis, up to 80 residents attend the meal.
Since the first meal was served at Belle Tower on June 4, Hope Huxel, the building’s service coordinator, has witnessed positive results. She said many of the residents lack transportation and financial resources to buy groceries, which has a negative impact on their health.
“This program means so much and we will all be forever grateful,” Huxel said. “I have people eating meals and taking their [medications] more effectively on a full belly. I have people that were not eating and losing weight that are now at least 20 lbs. heavier since the meals started.”
Helping older adults live healthier lives is just one of the goals of the federal congregate meal program, a service of the Older Americans Act (OAA) administered by Area Agencies on Aging, like Council on Aging (COA).
A short drive away at the Booker T. Washington Community Center, a group of older adults sit down at round tables for a similar meal. Many still wear painting smocks from attending the center’s “Paint N Chat” workshop just before their meal. Both the congregate meal and painting class are free for anyone aged 60 or over to attend.
The two congregate meal sites are the first in the city of Hamilton since January. The city has the highest number of adults age 65 and older in the county – 8,219 or 13.2 percent of the city’s population (2010 Census) – but had been lacking a congregate meal site following the closure of the senior center on Ross Avenue.
Congregate meals are designed to provide safe and nutritious meals in a group setting that sustain and improve participants’ health and reduce isolation by promoting socialization. The intent of congregate meals and other OAA nutrition programs, such as home-delivered meals, is to make community-based nutrition services available to older adults who may be at risk of losing their independence and their ability to remain in the community. Congregate and home-delivered meals are provided free of charge to eligible adults age 60 and older, though donations are accepted.
Nationally, congregate meal participants report that the program helps meet their daily nutritional needs and helps them live healthier lives:
- 58% of participants indicated that one congregate meal provides one-half or more of their total food for the day
- 76% of participants believe their health has improved as a result of a lunch program (2016 National Survey of OAA Participants)
“Congregate meals play an important role in helping older adults get the nutrition they need to live healthy lives, while also providing an opportunity to socialize with friends and neighbors,” said Randy Quisenberry, COA’s manager of procurement and provider services. “Considering the size of the older adult population in Hamilton, we knew there was an unmet need and set out to make it right.”
As the Area Agency on Aging for southwestern Ohio, including Butler County, COA plans and oversees community services funded by the OAA, including congregate meals. In this capacity, COA contracts with qualified service providers to prepare and deliver meals to sites across COA’s service area. In 2017, COA provided 162,048 meals in five counties, including 25,977 in Butler County.
Taking action, Quisenberry and other COA staff searched the Hamilton area for potential sites and identified Belle Tower and Booker T. Washington as ideal locations – Belle Tower because of its ready population of low-income older adults, and Booker T. Washington because of its role as a community center with senior-specific programming already in place. Central Connections, an existing congregate meal provider in the county, agreed to prepare and deliver the meals at the two new Hamilton sites.
“We are really excited that COA came to us with this opportunity and that we are able to help residents have access to a nutritious meal,” said Monica Smith, executive director at Central Connections.
With the addition of these two sites, up to 100 older adults and people with disabilities in the Hamilton area are now getting a daily nutritious meal. At Belle Tower, residents expressed their gratitude and spoke of how helpful the congregate meal was to their financial and emotional well-being.
“Everybody really enjoys and appreciates the meals,” said Betty Burke, a resident of Belle Tower. “A lot of people can’t afford food. The meals are very good and I hate it whenever I’m unable to come.”
While meals at Belle Tower are open to building residents only, meals at the Booker T. Washington Community Center, located at 1140 S. Front St., are open to the public.
“[The meals are] really well received from the community,” said Samy Broyles, center director at Booker T. Washington. “It’s great for the seniors to have a meal after class.”
Meals are provided at noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Booker T. Washington. Adults age 60 and older and individuals with a disability are eligible to attend the meal, but a reservation is required. People who are interested in participating should call 513-785-2451 to reserve a spot at the meal. The center offers other activities for older adults before the meals, including art and line dancing classes (fees may be required).
Click here for a complete list of congregate meal sites in Council on Aging’s service area.