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Serving Seniors Looks Back On Difficult Year, 1.7 Million Meals Delivered

Two senior citizens enjoy a game of Dominoes at the Serving Seniors Wellness Center in San Diego on Nov. 29, 2019.
Priya Sridhar
Two senior citizens enjoy a game of Dominoes at the Serving Seniors Wellness Center in San Diego on Nov. 29, 2019.

Since the coronavirus pandemic forced Serving Seniors to shut down one of its core services to impoverished San Diego County seniors, the nonprofit has pivoted to a different model and served more than 1.7 million meals to 5,467 clients.

On March 12, 2020, the senior citizen-focused nutrition group had to close its 11 congregate meal sites due to the public health crisis, leaving thousands of low-income seniors without reliable access to food.

Virtually overnight, it rapidly responded to the urgent health and nutritional needs of San Diego County's low-income seniors impacted by COVID- 19, creating a new program from scratch to provide home-delivered and to-go meals for clients.


"Where there is a need, we must find a way," said Melinda Forstey, Serving Seniors' chief operating officer.

She took on the daunting challenge of designing a new full-scale home delivery program.

"We know two in five older adults in San Diego County can't afford basic rent, food, transportation or health care," Forstey said. "We couldn't let them go hungry and threaten their ability to remain independent because of the pandemic."

Because of Forstey and her team's efforts, the average meals provided per week increased from 13,511 pre-pandemic to 33,131, an increase of nearly 145%.

Nutrition Program staff manage the client roster, including information on dietary restrictions or health challenges. Menus are developed monthly in collaboration with county registered dieticians, and meal- preparation contractor Trio Community Meals.


All meals are prepared each morning in the Serving Seniors Potiker Family Residence kitchens in the East Village. Serving Seniors drivers deliver the meals to homes on 26 delivery routes throughout the county, as well as distribution hubs in Oceanside and the South Bay. Deliveries take place Monday through Friday, with additional meals provided Thursday and Friday to cover the weekend.

To-go meals are also available at Serving Seniors in downtown San Diego and the Oceanside Senior Center. Meals are served 365 days a year.

"You never know what you're capable of achieving until you face a crisis like this one," Serving Seniors CEO Paul Downey said. "Thanks to our incredibly dedicated and capable team, we did not miss a single day of providing meals to our clients during the last year.

"One year later, we have the opportunity to assess the lasting impact and long-term implications for seniors and for programs and services needed when things return to `normal.' Once we receive clear guidance from the CDC regarding indoor activities, we anticipate opening our service sites later this year," Downey continued. "We remain focused for now on the safety of our clients who are mostly at high-risk for serious outcomes from COVID-19. But we are also acutely aware of the mental health implications of the long-term isolation."

Once clients start receiving meals, a Serving Seniors case manager meets with them to determine whether any other services or resources might benefit them, providing an additional outreach opportunity to low-income and homeless seniors.

The Senior Nutrition Program is staffed with a team of 39 employees, including a food service director, site coordinators, a home-delivered meals manager and food service workers and drivers. Food Service Director Dianne Sanders has 28 years of experience implementing and managing the group's nutrition programs.

Serving Seniors has provided meals since its inception in 1970 and home-delivered meals for more than 30 years. To date, the nonprofit has provided more than 13 million meals to an estimated 58,000 San Diego County seniors.