SOLON– Solon’s Old Gold Dining began providing congregate meals to area seniors in May 1980, the year after the Solon United Methodist Church built its fellowship hall. In the three decades since its inception, the program has undergone various changes, from cooking meals on-site to contracting with a meal provider, serving a fluctuating number of people throughout the years to a current roster of 93 participants age 60 and older.
Over time, Old Gold Dining has become much more than a place to get hot food once a day for the price of a free-will donation.
The program’s site council has always faced challenges and made necessary changes along the way, but members are fighting now to protect Old Gold Dining from funding cuts that they fear could change its very mettle.
To contend with them, the program will contract with Solon Retirement Village to provide its food beginning in January.
In the 1990s, Solon Old Gold Dining began an arrangement for Johnson County Elder Services, Inc., (ESI) to provide food, which required Old Gold Dining’s site manager or a volunteer to drive to Iowa City to pick up daily meal items in insulated containers, return to the church to prepare take-out boxes to be delivered to homebound seniors, and serve the rest to on-site diners family style. In the mid-2000s, Solon’s local coordinators began to look for ways to increase attendance at the congregate site, establishing once-monthly sponsored meals and offering social, informational and health-oriented activities. The effort was successful, bringing a significant increase in regular participation.
Today, Solon Old Gold dining serves an average of 20 to 25 meals each day, peaking occasionally at 60 to 75 or more. Diners may come for the noon meal, but they also stay for Bingo, card games, musical performances by local students and presentations from area business owners, politicians and senior advocate organizations. The dining site has become a conduit for seniors who seek other social functions, such as Solon’s monthly Meal-and-a-Movie gatherings, van and bus trips to regional points of interest, and outside entertainment events. Old Gold attendees are also informed about available educational opportunities such as exercise classes, workshop sessions and health screenings.
“There’s quite a contrast between sitting at home watching TV with a peanut butter sandwich for lunch and coming to senior dining and playing Bingo or euchre, visiting with your friends or meeting somebody new,” said Art Tellin, Old Gold Dining site council president. “It’s the way life was meant to be. People need people.”
Old Gold Dining participant and Solon Senior Advocate member Sandy Hanson said coming to senior dining can be the difference between empty and full; not just bellies, but also lives.
“We’ve seen a lot of widows who have come to senior dining, and then slowly they come to other activities, and then they end up helping and being involved. This is our senior center. The food is the draw– the nucleus, if you will– but from there radiates many other positive things.”
However, in October 2012, Old Gold Dining coordinators got some news that was hard to swallow. ESI’s umbrella agency, the Heritage Agency on Aging, experienced federal funding cuts that forced ESI to lay off staff and reduce meal offerings by about 12,000 meals county-wide.
For Solon, it meant losing the Old Gold Dining site manager, and an even less-palatable change to the program; serving frozen-dinner style food to participants.
Known as the “Oliver” system, it is named for a company in Michigan that produces the equipment needed to package meals. ESI would fund just one hour of staff time each day, which only accommodated daily delivery of the Oliver meals, and the priority would be serving homebound seniors. The plastic film-covered meals stay warmer longer to better maintain meal integrity, ESI’s executive director Susan Wehr assured the Old Gold site council last year.
But site council members and representatives of Solon Senior Advocates worried less about the integrity of the food and more about the integrity of the people. Essentially, said Tellin, it was like being handed a warmed TV dinner.
“The quantity was reduced, so even the home-delivered people began to notice the difference,” said Tellin. “We had to search for another answer, or it was going to kill our program.”
“Some of the seniors at home had difficulty opening the seal on the meals,” added Hanson. “We lost the one-on-one atmosphere, we lost the home family serving feel. It was kind of demeaning.”
Therefore, organizers once again went to work to secure outside funding for the site manager’s position. They approached the Solon City Council and the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, both of which agreed to give $2,500. With ESI’s one hour of funding, it was enough to reinstitute Solon’s site manager for 2013.
However, the concern over future cuts– and the potential for Old Gold Dining to lose the character that has fortified its 33-year longevity– was still on the table.
Funding for nutrition programs is fed through several agencies before it reaches the plates of the nation’s elderly. At the top is the Federal Administration on Aging, which appropriates dollars to states, including the Iowa Administration on Aging. The Heritage Agency on Aging, located on the Kirkwood Community College campus, is the regional entity responsible for funneling state dollars to local agencies that provide services to seniors. Heritage is one of Iowa’s six Area Agencies on Aging (AAA), and serves Johnson County as well as Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Jones, Linn and Washington counties. ESI in Johnson County is one entity that contracts with Heritage to provide services at the county level.
So when the federal government experiences sequestration and belt tightening, restrictions on spending are passed down to state departments, regional agencies and organizations like ESI. In turn, local programs that rely on ESI for support– like Solon Old Gold Dining– are choked as well.
According to the Federal Administration on Aging, federal appropriations for nutrition services to the elderly decreased by nearly $3.2 million from fiscal years 2010 to 2013. The trickle-down effect created a gap of 53,000 meals throughout the region last year, said Heritage’s Healthy Living and Nutrition Coordinator, Tim Getty.
Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan expressed his concerned over funding in a telephone interview last week.
“The federal government has gutted the (nutrition) program, and continues to gut it. And what they don’t gut, they gum it up with stupid rules,” said Sullivan. “I tip my hat to the Solon seniors who have worked very diligently to try to maintain the program that people have come to love and count on.”
Garnering the support of local, state and federal-level elected officials remains an important action in feeding Johnson County’s vulnerable, frail and elderly, but it wasn’t enough to safeguard what has become the essence of Old Gold Dining– a commitment to nourish not only the bodies, but also the minds and spirits of Solon’s aging population.
When the agreement between Old Gold Dining and Solon Retirement Village begins next month, the program’s connection to ESI for nutrition funding will be severed.
It is both an exciting and unpredictable evolution for Old Gold Dining.
“We know that the food quality will be better,” said Tellin. “Many people from Solon have already eaten at the Retirement Village and they say it’s good. The menu selection will be better, and the quantities will be quite satisfactory.”
Plus, buying local is a boon for the community, Hanson added.
“The practical aspect is it eliminates the need to find volunteers to drive to Iowa City every day and transport food,” said Hanson. “I think it says a lot about what the city, the county, the community and the Retirement Village is willing to step up and do.”
But providing five meals a day will not be without challenges, particularly financial ones. First of all, paying for the meal will no longer be voluntary. ESI supplemented costs for patrons who could not afford to pay, and that assistance will no longer exist.
“It is a cost now, not a donation,” said Hanson. “It will cost $3.25, and we are still trying to figure out how we can fund those who cannot afford it.”
Second, said Tellin, ongoing funding for the site manager– a position currently filled by valued and well-known Ely resident Duane McAtee– is still up in the air.
“We have not heard from the board of supervisors if they will continue funding in future years. The City of Solon has said they will contribute for the next year, but after that, we don’t know,” said Tellin.
It means Solon Old Gold Dining will still have to sing for its supper. The program that has historically been so successful in bringing seniors to the table through primarily government funding may now have to turn to the community for crucial support.
“It is a significant need, and won’t be covered by just a one-time donation,” said Hanson.
Tellin agreed. It may require establishing a perpetual fund to supplement diners who cannot afford the daily cost; $3.25 per meal for five days each week adds up to $65 per month, and that can be a substantial portion of a fixed monthly income.
“We want to protect those people and keep them involved,” he said. “We don’t know how that will take place, but we already have some indication that some people, especially some of our home-delivery recipients, will not be able to pay.”
Supervisor Sullivan said residents in and around Solon need to remain aware of, and involved in, the issue.
“There may come at time when their volunteer efforts simply aren’t adequate to the task of taking care of seniors who need it, but that won’t be because of lack of effort,” Sullivan said. “The people of Solon should be incredibly proud of those people and the work they’ve done.”
To reserve a meal with Solon Old Gold Dining, or for more information, contact site manager Duane McAtee at 319-624-2251.