Serving meals to seniors
Serving meals to seniors during the Omicron surge. Courtesy Serving Seniors

Far too many low income and homeless older adults struggle to meet their basic needs, like access to food. One in ten San Diego County seniors reports food insecurity.

During the coronavirus pandemic which shut down all Serving Seniors in-person facilities for 13 months, our nonprofit delivered a record-breaking 1.7 million meals to low-income and homeless older adults. Average meals provided per week increased from 13,511 pre-COVID to 33,131 meals provided per week, an increase of nearly 41%.

Today in 2023, Serving Seniors is the single largest provider of meals to San Diego County older adults since its inception in 1970, and home-delivered meals for over 30 years. Last year, we provided 1.4 million meals. Serving Seniors feels privileged to serve this need but dismayed at the ongoing and growing need.

March marks the 50th anniversary of National Nutrition Month, an annual campaign created in 1973 by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. During the month of March, everyone is invited to learn about making informed food choices and developing healthful eating and physical activity habits.

Serving Seniors embraces this year’s campaign theme, “Fuel for the Future.” As people live longer, low income and homeless older adults continue to struggle with their most basic healthy living needs even as their numbers rise. At the most basic level, the Serving Seniors team works hard 365 days a year to ensure no older adult goes to bed hungry.

Our nutrition staff manage our program starting with information on dietary restrictions or health challenges. Menus are developed monthly in collaboration with San Diego County registered dieticians, and meal-preparation contractor Trio Community Meals.

All meals are prepared fresh daily each morning in the Serving Seniors Potiker Family Residence kitchens in the East Village. Meals are served in six congregate dining room settings. The largest is the Serving Seniors Gary and Mary West Wellness Center at Fourth and Beech streets in downtown San Diego. We also serve meals in City Heights, East San Diego, Oceanside, and recently began meal service in Imperial Beach.

To those of us who work with San Diego County’s most vulnerable older adults, a meal is much more than a simple plate of food. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness and social isolation in older adults are serious public health risks affecting a significant number of people in the U.S., putting them at risk for dementia and other serious medical conditions. Offering socialization over meals is a vital part of the Serving Seniors mission to keep older adults healthy and better able to avoid homelessness.

Once a client starts receiving meals, a Serving Seniors case manager meets with each person to determine whether any other services or resources might benefit them, providing an additional outreach opportunity to low-income and homeless older adults. They can access healthcare, exercise classes, walking groups, and civic engagement. Not only do our fresh, nutritious meals provide the basic building blocks of healthy aging, our lively dining room service feeds the soul as well — 365 days a year and free of charge.

For homebound older adults, Serving Seniors drivers deliver meals to homes on 26 delivery routes throughout the county, as well as distribution hubs in Oceanside and in the South Bay area of San Diego. Deliveries take place Monday through Friday, with additional meals provided Thursday and Friday to cover the weekend.

To-go meals are also available at Serving Seniors in downtown San Diego, and the Oceanside Senior Center. To date, Serving Seniors has provided over 13 million meals to an estimated 58,000 San Diego County seniors.

We recently received a heartfelt thank you note from Janet, age 82. She wrote: “Thank you very much for the meals. They are very good. It’s very hard to cook for one. I really appreciate your kindness. You not only bring great food but also friendship.”

Whether you’re an older adult or are working your way toward being one, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics  encourages everyone to learn about making informed food choices and developing healthful eating and physical activity habits.

Paul Downey is CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives.