After more than a year and 80,000+ delivered meals, Council on Aging’s (COA) COVID-19 ComfortMeal Program continues to have an impact on area older adults.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, COA heard from older adults who were afraid to go out for groceries and other necessities. They felt isolated, alone and forgotten. Others found themselves without their regular support network. Many who contacted COA had never before needed help.
Food security immediately became a focus for COA, with social isolation following close behind.
Comfort through food
Council on Aging began searching for ways to bring comfort to older adults – particularly low-income older adults – who were stuck in the monotony created by the pandemic. The comfort meal program was born after local restaurant group, LaRosa’s Pizzeria, stepped in to provide meals to older adults in two low-income apartment buildings who’d been impacted by a multi-day power outage and pandemic-related lockdowns.
“We’ve learned from past emergency situations that food quickly becomes an urgent need for older adults,” said Council on Aging CEO, Suzanne Burke. “We partnered with area restaurants to not only help meet the nutritional needs of older adults during the pandemic, but to also help them feel connected to the outside world. Things may be returning to normal, but many older adults are still weary of being in crowds, and sadly, some have fallen out of touch with their social and support networks. We plan to continue this program for the foreseeable future, so older adults have time to adjust to life changes caused by the pandemic.”
Today, COA’s comfort meal program includes ten area restaurants – five of them minority-owned. The restaurants include LaRosa’s, Taste of Belgium, Frisch’s, C&M BBQ Grille, Beaugard’s Southern Bar B Que, Quatman Café, Neal’s Famous BBQ, Big Jay’s Place, La Soupe and Chef Anthony Jordan. Since April 2020, COA and these restaurants have provided 80,000+ meals to older adults living in low-income senior apartment buildings throughout COA’s service area.
While the program’s primary focus is feeding and bringing comfort to low-income older adults, the program also provided a boost to COA’s local economy at a critical time. The restaurant industry was hit hard by pandemic-related shutdowns and limitations to dine-in service. Meals purchased by COA helped restaurants keep their doors open – and their staff at work.
“This is an opportunity for us to bring some people back to work and keep the lights on at our commissary,” said Jean-François Flechet, owner of Taste of Belgium, at the start of the comfort meal program. “But more importantly, it’s an opportunity to give back and be part of something good that’s happening in our community.”
Matt Imm, owner of Quatman Café, said his restaurants have seen a boost because of the program. “People are coming in that might not have otherwise heard of Quatman,” he said. “It’s a win-win. The program has been great for business, and it’s a wonderful thing for the older adults. It’s like people helping people. That’s what we need right now.”
Marty Beaugard, owner of Beaugard’s Southern Bar B Que in Clinton County, has had a similar experience. “They are so appreciative,” he said of the older adults who receive his home-cooked meals. “One senior came in after sending me a card. She gave me a hug and told me how much she loved it. She told me when this is all over, she would eat at Beaugard’s more often.”
“We’ve had nothing but positive feedback from customers who have received the meals,” added Imm. “One gentleman came to the restaurant and actually brought the box the meal was delivered in. He signed the box with a personal thank you and wanted to hand it to me personally.”
COA’s comfort meal program is a community partnership. The meals are paid for by COA – via grants, donations and federal funds designated to expand meal service to older adults during the pandemic*. COA service providers, including Meals on Wheels of Southwestern Ohio & Northern Kentucky (MOW), collect the meals from participating restaurants and deliver them to low-income senior apartment buildings across COA’s service area.
To serve more vulnerable older adults through this program, MOW generously shared a donation they received from KFC. A total of 72,000 boneless, frozen chicken breasts were donated to MOW – many of which have been allocated to comfort meal restaurant partners. The restaurants will use the donated food in their meals, reducing the cost of meal preparation and increasing the number of meals they can provide.
“The restaurants and providers have become quite a team,” said Burke. “The restaurants are a significant part of COA, and we are a significant part of their business. We’re all in it because we care.”
COA and the program’s restaurant partners have received countless phone calls, letters and cards from comfort meal recipients, all with a similar theme: Thank you for remembering us. The program has also been recognized for several local, state and national awards.
*Hamilton County CARES Act funds support COA’s Comfort Meal Program.