During the COVID-19 pandemic, food has become 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 have become 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 – is 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 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.
Since the start of the pandemic, COA has delivered approximately 15,000 emergency food boxes to home-delivered meals recipients. Sites that once served congregate meals in group settings converted to drive-up, 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 more than 7,500 area older adults enrolled in the program.
But as the pandemic has worn on, older adults have 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 five-county 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 began providing regular meals through COA’s 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,” Ford said. “And we felt as an organization that 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.
In July, C&M BBQ Grille and Chef Anthony Jordan joined COA’s comfort meal program, providing barbeque, grilled chicken, greens, potato salad, meatloaf and more to seniors in Hamilton County.
Cecil and Mary Solomon – the C and M of C&M BBQ Grille – are no strangers to serving older adults in the community. Cecil Soloman is a driver for Cincinnati Area Senior Services (CASS), taking older adults to the grocery store and other outings.
“This is personal for me,” Solomon said. “When the [Hamilton County Senior Services] levy was up, I went and spoke up about how much its needed. Seniors are vulnerable. I’m a heartbeat away from having someone drive me!”
Participating in COA’s meal program has been a blessing, Solomon said. He has not been driving for CASS since the pandemic started, but that means he has time to help Mary in the kitchen preparing extra meals for COA.
For Chef Anthony Jordan, COA’s meal program is an opportunity to “stand in the gap” and help older adults through the pandemic.
A Certified Personal Chef, Jordan has led cooking classes for older adults and children through the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, Center for Closing the Health Gap and Cincinnati State University.
“For me personally, this connection and collaboration with COA is huge,” Jordan said. “These are our people, our elders. COA stands in the gap [to help older adults] and I want to emulate that.”
La Soupe, a local commissary whose mission is to rescue unused food from area restaurants, transform it into healthy meals and share it with those in need, is also providing meals to older adults through COA’s program.
COA’s comfort meal program is a community partnership. The meals are paid for by COA – via federal funds to expand meal service to older adults during the pandemic – and 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. Since April, nearly 15,000 comfort meals have arrived at the doors of seniors in need.
“It’s rewarding to see the impact these meals are having on older adults in our community,” said Burke. “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.”
More than 183,000 people age 65 and older live in southwestern Ohio and Council on Aging provides home and community-based services including meals, transportation and home care assistance to more than 26,000 of those individuals. Older adults are among the groups most at risk for severe complications and death from COVID-19. In Ohio, people age 60 and older account for nearly 60 percent of coronavirus-related hospitalizations and more than 90 percent of deaths.
Older adults who need help during this time should contact Council on Aging at (513) 721-1025.