Serving Up Hope and Connection

Even before the pandemic, 1 in 6 Tampa Bay seniors faced hunger every day. COVID-19 pushed them to the brink of crisis.  Mandatory social distancing meant that many seniors became homebound and isolated. The rise in already high numbers of isolated seniors led to a 300% increase in requests for home-delivered meals. Many found themselves waitlisted or turned away. One stated, “We didn’t know what was happening. We were cut off from the world and our friends and neighbors.” At the same time, in the restaurant industry mandatory closures meant loss of customers and revenue. More than that, it forced restaurant owners and chefs to stop doing what they love: serving food and joy.

While some might see two unrelated issues, others recognized an opportunity to connect and help. Area Agency on Aging Pasco-Pinellas (AAAPP) saw the increased isolation of seniors, the loss of revenue for restaurants and connected the two using federal CARES Act dollars targeted specifically to feed seniors. Together, Seniors in Service, AAAPP, Neighborly Care Network and Pasco County Senior Services brought an innovative home-delivery meal program for low-income seniors to life. Faced with the logistical problems of creating a new program, AAAPP reached out to Seniors in Service for assistance. Becky MacKenzie, Director of Program Accountability for AAAPP, explained, “We’re used to vendors that are geared toward home delivery. Restaurants are a non-traditional vendor, so it was a learning experience.”  Becky shared that Seniors in Service made sure the restaurants were vetted for health code compliance. Seniors in Service’s Morgan Griffin tells why she jumped at the chance to spearhead the program. “I have a background in restaurants, so this seemed like a great opportunity.  It was really rewarding to feel like I was actually making a difference and helping people in need.”

With Morgan leading the charge, Seniors in Service tackled logistics, from identifying seniors who needed meals to finding and vetting restaurants interested in participating.  The process had to be built from the ground up. Seniors in Service partnered with Neighborly Care Network and Pasco County Senior Services to build relationships with local restaurants. According to Anita Frankhauser, Nutrition Director and Licensed Dietitian with Neighborly, “The goal was to put money into the economy by helping restaurants that were closed by the pandemic while assisting seniors.”

Unlike other food delivery programs, the food served through Dining Out At Home is fresh and hot. With Neighborly’s guidance, restaurants designed menus to meet the dietary restrictions of older adults. Glenn Wostbrock, restauranteur and owner of Frog Pond, described the menu creation process, “We thought about some of the things seniors might like, generational things. They like their comfort foods. We tried to make a homecooked meal that we would provide to our family members while keeping the nutritional value balanced.” Glenn continued, “We’re proud of the menu we created, and we’re happy to have the opportunity to be involved and make a difference. To us, it was a blessing.”

Creating a new, innovative way to deliver meals to homebound seniors was not simple. While the restaurants worked on creating and cooking meals, volunteers were also needed to deliver them. Anita from Neighborly noted, “We developed the program quickly. Getting enough volunteers to deliver was a challenge, especially since a lot of our volunteers are seniors who were also sheltering in place. Getting the word out was tricky.” That’s when Seniors in Service jumped in to recruit volunteers. Chris Noble, Director of Programs at Seniors in Service, explained, “Engaging volunteers is our specialty! Some volunteers gave 2 days, 5 days, whatever they could. A sense of urgency was important to get our seniors fed. People need to eat.”

While meals are the primary concern, Dining Out At Home is also delivering social connection to isolated seniors while allowing restaurants to serve up good food and joy to recipients. Vicky, owner of Natalie’s Restaurant, stated, “We love working with seniors, most of our customers are seniors.” Dining Out At Home gives Vicky and Natalie’s staff the chance to continue serving seniors while volunteers ease their isolation. Vicky shared, “When volunteers come back saying the seniors are waiting at the door for their food, that really strikes me. Even if it’s a minute or two to talk to the person delivering, it might be the only human interaction they have all day.” And volunteers also benefit, telling us how much they appreciate the chance to stay active and purposeful.

Dining Out At Home has been a huge success, delivering 87,103 meals since April to homebound elders. 18 restaurants, including Frog Pond and Natalie’s, came together across Pinellas and Pasco counties to serve seniors.  Becky stated, “It’s amazing how much this collaboration has accomplished in such a short amount of time. Seniors in Service jumped into a very fast-moving process and handled every twist like the process was a breeze.” Anita agreed, “It’s great to see this public-private partnership meet our common goal to serve seniors.”

In times of great stress and isolation, collaboration and connection are essential. Through the simple experience of sharing food, the importance of reaching across boundaries is clear. Becky put it perfectly, “I think we will look back on these times many years from now and will be able to tell people how our community came together during the pandemic of 2020.” Together, we’re better.

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