By Julie Ann Madden
As of July 1, meals at the Akron Senior Center will be catered — they will no longer be homemade on site.
“Nothing’s going to happen to Barb (Mitchell),” Siouxland Aging Services Executive Director Barb Morrison told a few Akron city officials in a special meeting at noon June 11 at the Akron Senior Center.
She also requested that the Akron Senior Center equipment be left as is.
“Until this program really unfolds, we want to work with this for a little while,” Morrison. “We may need ovens. We’re going to need freezers, refrigerators. At least let us run with it a while.”
According to Siouxland Aging Services Assistant Nutrition Director Vicky Lohry in a telephone interview after that meeting, state officials mandated a merger of the 13 area agencies across the state into six.
Siouxland Aging Services, which had provided services to five counties, has now merged with agencies in Creston and Council Bluffs and the new entity will cover 21 counties, including Plymouth County. Their new name will be Connections Area Agency on Aging and the Sioux City office will remain open.
The goal was to have consistency throughout the state, said Lohry, “so the senior could travel anywhere in Iowa and receive the same services from an aging provider.”
“In order to get consistency, the catered meals were a very positive thing,” she said, adding the caterers are Treat America Food Service, which has its main office in Kansas City, but the local agency is affiliated with the Omaha, Neb. office.
“With the (mandated) nutritional guidelines, the caterers are able to provide the meals at a better price than what we can purchase the raw food and cook the meals,” said Lohry, adding the caterer gets discounts for buying in bulk such as purchasing from Sam’s Club.
Catering provides seniors with more variety in their meals, she said, explaining menus will be rotated more frequently — in a six-week cycle.
“Seniors seemed to be really excited about it,” said Lohry. “They’re excited about getting taco salads, lettuce salads, sweet & sour chicken and lasagne.”
The caterer will deliver the meals — hot and ready to be served — from Omaha to the Akron Senior Center, said Lohry. Cold foods such as milk will be transported in coolers and refrigerated at the Akron Senior Center and frozen meals will be transported frozen and placed in the center’s freezers.
There may be items like fish that will be transported to the center frozen, then cooked on site, she said. So, the Akron Senior Center’s equipment will still be needed for now.
The Omaha caterer has been providing this service to senior centers in seven counties for eight years and hasn’t run into food quality issues caused by transporting meals to sites, said Lohry. “I don’t want to do anything to change the quality of food. I want the seniors to have the best qualify of food possible.”
“Seniors seemed very receptive to this (change),” said Lohry, adding in July, the menu will include such entrees as Garlic Herb Chicken Breast Strips over a lettuce salad; Goulash; Corned Beef Brisket; Fried Chicken; and Taco Salad.
Each day, On-Site Manager Barb Mitchell will conduct a survey of how Akron’s clientele liked the meal. Seniors will use a system of 1 to 5 with “1” for best and “5” for worst.
Then every three months, or quarterly, Mitchell will meet with other nutrition directors, discuss clienteles’ comments and make changes if needed.
Meal changes take the current agency about three months to have a menu change because it takes approval of a licensed dietician, said Lohry. Caterers have a dietician on staff so menus can be redone quickly and more efficiently.
“Seniors will have more input than they have ever had,” said Lohry, adding if the majority dislike a meal, then it won’t be on the menu again.
Another huge benefit of this change is the entity will provide frozen meals and/or shelf-stable meals to clientele. This service is already provided to in-town residents.
Lohry hopes to begin providing this service to rural residents within the next six months. People can order a week’s or a month’s worth of meals to be delivered to their homes.
People must be 60 years of age to receive discounted meal prices from this aging service at the Akron Senior Center. If younger than 60, including the disabled under age 60, they must pay the price set by the entity. Currently, it is $6.80.
People can not just drop in for a meal — they must sign up by noon the day before or call before noon the day before to order a meal for the next day as Barb will place the order after noon each week day.
Mitchell and employee Richard Huebner will still be employed by the aging entity, said Lohry.
“(With catering) it’s going to take the cooks out of the kitchen and put them back out in front of the seniors where they need to be so they can help with socialization, social activities such as Bingo, playing cards and whatever the case may be as well as provide nutritional education,” said Lohry.
“Our goal right now is to reach out to clients just come of age (60) who are either still working or feel like it’s not for them to be at a senior center,” she said. “So we’re trying to reach those people with the education, socialization and a younger menu.”
“We didn’t grow up on roast beef and mashed potatoes once a week,” she said. “We grew up on lasagne, taco salad, sweet & sour chicken. That’s the direction we’re trying to go.”
“Seniors are healthier than they used to be,” said Lohry. “They grew up healthier.”
“In order to attract the younger clientele into the meal site and to keep the sites going, we need people there to make it work so our goal is to do that,” she said. “We’ll be able to increase the numbers through socialization.”
“If we need to provide a Friday night meal and bring in a band for a dance or do a Sunday brunch, we will,” said Lohry. “We need to figure out some other ideas to help bring these people in. It might be such a thing as an evening meal twice a week because they’re working.”
“Right now the average age at (Akron’s) meal site is 85 to 90,” she said. “There’s a void there we need to fill. We need to figure out why we’re missing that boat. Why are there some 70-year-olds that don’t come into Akron’s meal site?”