Five Questions for: Bob Harrison

On Monday, two of the seven senior nutrition centers in Somerset County, N.J., started a new café program. The program’s goals are to offer seniors more meal choices and to increase participation, according to Bob Harrison, foodservice manager for the Area Agency on Aging for Somerset County.On Monday, two of the seven senior nutrition centers in Somerset County, Pa., started a new café program. The program’s goals are to offer seniors more meal choices and to increase participation, according to Bob Harrison, foodservice manager for the Area Agency on Aging for Somerset County.

What is the new café program?

We have seven congregate senior nutrition sites. We serve about 200 meals a day at these sites. Our regular meals are a heavier, hot meal. We wanted to be able to offer lighter fare. With the café program we developed menus that have soups and sandwiches. We’ve put new things like wraps and pita bread on the menu. A lot of our homemade soups are popular so we’ve incorporated a lot more of those.

We are featuring a lot of different salads, like an Asian shrimp salad, taco salad or steak salad. We also have BLTs and other things that seniors don’t usually get. Almost everything here is made from scratch.

We are piloting the café concept at two centers. Our goal is to roll out the system to the other five centers by November. We started on Monday and it seems like it’s picking up momentum.

Why did you want to start the new program?

The goal of the program is to modernize senior nutrition services. The emphasis was on giving consumers more choice. The long-term desire is to increase participation and attendance. Since 2002, we’ve had a total of 52 senior centers that have closed in the state. Of that, 41 were closed due to declining attendance and/or lack of funding.

Where did the funding come for the new concept?

Our secretary of aging for the state, John Michael Hall, identified that the seniors of today want a senior center that looks like a modern restaurant. He thought that senior centers should offer more variety of food choices and have a style of comfort. They came up with this grant process at the end of last year. There was grant money available for the state. They received $4.55 million for senior nutrition programs from the federal economic stimulus act.

Any area agency on aging that wanted to submit an application for these funds received $20,000 just for submitting a proposal. We submitted three applications: one for a marketing person, to purchase china and to start the café concept. The only one that was approved was the café concept. We still decided to proceed on the other two even though we didn’t get approved for those. We purchased new china and cups for the senior centers. We hired a marketing person as well.

How has the economy affected your programs?

The cost of food has gone up, and as a result we had to increase our suggested donation at the congregate feeding sites. The donation used to be $2 and now it is $3.

Originally when we were pricing out the café menu, we found that some of the soups were too expensive to make in house—there is a hiring freeze in Somerset County—so we ordered those in frozen. We didn’t like some of them, so now we make most of our soups in house.

What other changes have you made to your programs?

We are also going to offer some more choices for the home-delivered meals. We didn’t want to do something for only the congregate site customers. For example, right now everyone is getting skim milk with their meals and we are going to give them a choice of skim, chocolate or 2%. We also have a salad select program that runs in the summer. We decided to run this year-round because it is popular. We are going to try to incorporate that into the home-delivered program on Wednesdays. So they can chose the salad select meal on Wednesday or have the traditional hot meal.

Another thing is takeout. It wasn’t available in the past. Ideally we would like to have people call in and order and we will make it ready for them to pick up. We are going to make some extra soup available if people call in. Right now we have a reservation system in place for our congregate meal centers. If people come in and want takeout and we have some food left, that’s fine. We can’t have too much waste so we make so much and then it’s gone.