In Santa Clara County, providing meals to needy seniors is a challenge that's bound to get more difficult.
The number of residents ages 60 and over is expected to climb by 25% in just five years, and those seniors are getting harder to reach. A growing number of elderly county residents are still in the workforce and just scraping by in the high-cost region, and they are more likely to be the caregivers for young children. The traditional way of providing food to seniors, congregate meal programs (such as serving lunch at a senior center), simply isn't enough anymore.
In trying to reach more people at a time when seniors are poorer and more diverse, the county's Senior Nutrition Program (SNP) is seeking inspiration from others, including restaurant-style meal vouchers in San Francisco and a recently expanded food truck service provided by the Mountain View Whisman School District.
In an update to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, SNP staff laid out plans for an upcoming food truck pilot that could deliver meals to senior housing complexes, areas deemed food deserts and other locations with a high concentration of low-income older adults living in transportation "dead zones."
The program will be a collaboration with the Mountain View Whisman School District's Seamless Summer initiative, which recently expanded to include food truck deliveries. Under Debbie Austin, the district's food services director, the program went from serving 15,000 meals over the summer to 60,000 in just three years, in part because food was served at popular locales like the Mountain View Public Library and Rengstorff Park instead of at a school campus. The goal is to eventually include a handful of apartment complex parking lots in the route as well.
But kids weren't the only ones to benefit. In talking to Austin about the program, SNP officials discovered that a high number of older adults taking care of kids were showing up as well, and were willing to pay a small fee in order to receive lunch. The policy will continue with this year's program, starting June 17 at three locations including Rengstorff Park. Seniors citizens will be asked for a "suggested contribution" of $3, though no one will be denied a meal.
The county's plan is to chip in an initial $5,000 for the district's Seamless Summer program and keep tabs on how many seniors receive meals in June, said Vanessa Merlano, the senior nutrition program manager for the county. If it's popular, the relatively small investment could grow for the months of July and August, and could serve as a template for a larger program in the future.
"This is a pilot project, and we're really trying to get a better understanding of whether this type of service platform is gonna work," Merlano said.
Though it's well documented that needy children miss out on meals and go hungry during the summer months when school is closed, it's an intergenerational problem here in Santa Clara County. Merlano said anecdotally, she has noticed a drop in participation at meal programs for seniors during the summer months. When she spoke to them directly, they said that having to take care of grandchildren presented a big barrier.
An estimated 7 percent of children in the county live in homes where a grandparent is the head of the household, and there's a clear evidence that their status as a caregiver gets in the way of attending so-called congregate meal programs like those at the Mountain View Senior Center, according to a county staff report. Many others also have inflexible schedules because they are still working, with seniors making up 17.5% of the county's workforce. The root causes include the high cost of living, lack of savings and increased life expectancy.
"The traditional congregate meal model does not work for this population," according to the report.
The county already does some mobile food delivery through its Meals on Wheels Program, which serves over 600,000 meals each year to home-bound residents ages 60 and older who have difficulty obtaining food because they are frail, disabled or recovering from an illness. West Valley residents also have access to the Reach Your Destination Easily (RYDE) program that transports home-bound seniors directly to meal programs and medical appointments.
Santa Clara County is also seeking to emulate the Restaurant Voucher Meal Program offered in San Francisco, which allows seniors to receive meals from local restaurants throughout the county that can vastly increase the number of places to receive free meals and bring down the "negative perceptions" of a congregate meal setting that keeps older residents away.
That isn't to say the county plans to abandon its existing 40 congregate meal sites. The program recently received a $900,000 surge in additional funding by the Board of Supervisors in March to fill an unmet need for senior lunches at numerous sites throughout Santa Clara County, with Board President Joe Simitian calling it a valuable way for seniors to find community.
"Too many seniors face isolation, and strengthening these programs means seniors have a friendly place to go in their community for a meal and socialization," Simitian said in a statement following the vote.
Mountain View's congregate meal program, hosted by Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos (CSA), serves more than 1,000 seniors each year and anywhere from 130 to 200 each week day, according to Tom Myers, executive director of CSA. That amounted to over 34,000 hot meals -- cooked on-site at the Mountain View Senior Center -- served in the last fiscal year. While he acknowledged there are challenges in reaching all seniors, he said the city is fortunate to see participation steadily grow.
More than half of the attendees reportedly come from low-income households, and the number of homeless seniors who participate spiked from 2% to 7% over three years and continues to rise.