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Imagine a Compassionate Community Food Program for the Plateau

Community leaders turned out Thursday for a discussion on how to best help feed the hungry in the Plateau community, with the emphasis on the region's growing senior population.

Of all the senior centers in King, Pierce, Thurston and Snohomish counties, the remains the only one that still provides a hot meal program for community seniors -- it's done so since 1974 -- but that distinction may no longer exist after this year, center manager Jobyna Nickum said Thursday.

At a gathering of community leaders and volunteers to address the question of how to feed the community's hungry seniors, children and families, Nickum explained that by the end of December, the center will no longer be able to provide hot home meal deliveries for homebound seniors. It currently provides these meals to anywhere between five and 10 seniors, she said.

She clarified that seniors are still able to have weekday hot lunches at the center -- that program is still going strong -- but the Catholic Community Services of Pierce County that is contracted to provide the delivery program is not going to continue to support it into 2013.

The deadline spurred community leaders Nickum, executive director and Jackie Madill, a campaign coordinator with Franciscan Health Systems to pull together the roundtable discussion Thursday at St. Elizabeth Hospital that drew about 50 people. They presented a vision of an ongoing community effort, inspired by other community food programs like Loaves & Fishes Centers in Portland (see feedseniors.org) and The Mustard Seed Project of Key Peninsula (themustardseedproject.org), to feed not only the elderly but also hungry children and hungry families.

Nelson reported that she has seen more homeless come through Plateau Outreach Ministries on a weekly basis. They're couch-surfing, living in cars or camping and they range from 18-year-olds to the elderly. "That face is real in this community," Nelson said. "I have been surprised at how young some of them are."

According to Nelson, the Enumclaw School District has seen a 10 percent rise in the number of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches, from 21 percent in 2005 to 31 percent in 2012. This year, the district has 33 students listed as homeless; there were 32 last year. (Read Patch's story about )

A Community of Food

Nutrition is only one element of the service the women want this community program to be able to provide. Organizers are beginning with the Senior Center as it has a system already in place, Madill explained.

The center benefits from a team of dedicated volunteers who deliver the meals every day, so along with the food that arrives at the seniors' door, there is a smile, a warm greeting and someone to talk to and have a conversation with.

Seniors who need meals delivered to them are often isolated, lonely and possibly depressed, so the volunteer's presence represents much more than just the meal they bring, Madill said.

It's about "a community of food as opposed to just nourishment," she said.

More practically, volunteers provide a safety net by looking out for the seniors. Volunteer Chuck Kessner said that on his delivery earlier in the day, he noted that a senior was in need of aid and was able to report it to the center which then contacted appropriate personnel to check on her.

Hot or Cold

Due to the economy, it was more efficient for the agencies that contract with the center to provide food to go with frozen food, Nickum said.

Why is hot food so important? Nickum demonstrated what a standard hot meal from the center looks like -- it's hot, freshly made and doesn't require the senior to do anything but eat it.

With a frozen meal, it assumes the senior has all of his or her facilities about them, she said, that they can remember that they are hungry, that they need to walk to retrieve their meal, turn on the oven or microwave to heat it and then get it out to eat.

And where to the frozen meals the center is able to provide come from? They're contracted out from Walla Walla Penitentiary, she said.

Involving the Community

The vision then is to build new local feeding program based on nutrition, compassion and human contact.

The existing programs, because they are supported by contracts with area social service agencies, are often mired in bureaucratic paperwork that find some seniors falling through the cracks when they have to wait a month for food, Nickum said. Referring to the Loaves & Fishes program that can get a meal out the door without 24 hours after their office is notified of a new applicant, she said she'd like for the Plateau program to align itself to the latter's philosophy.

Madill said the leaders hope to have a program in place by June that can serve one meal per weekday to 30 seniors on the Plateau. By December they hope the number can increase to 50 seniors.

Organizers are looking for members in the community to serve as leaders, find funding, provide ideas for food supplies, delivery and coordination.

They are looking for interested people to take part in a committee to begin strategizing how to go about the vision of a community feeding program.

If you are interested or would like more information, contact Madill at JackquelineMadill@fhshealth.org; Nelson at britt@plateauoutreach.org; or Nickum at jnickum@ci.enumclaw.wa.us.

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