Meal program attendance down
It was coming from the dining room of the housing complex on the corner of North Washington Street and West Memorial Drive.
Inside, 20-some hungry people sat around tables chatting while they waited for their food to be served.
Resident Ruth Byrne attends the five-day-a-week program at least once a week.
“I don’t always feel able to come, and there are days I can hardly get dressed,” said the 77-year-old Byrne, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.
That’s why the noon meal is so important to Byrne, who oftentimes doesn’t have the strength to cook so settles for a hot beverage and a bowl of cereal in her apartment.
Tablemate Daniel Hallett said he dreads weekends when meals aren’t served and he has to cook.
“I love the food and like the socialization and camaraderie,’’ said the 70-year-old, who praised the Rock County Council on Aging’s Golden Diners meal program.
“The service is excellent,’’ Hallett commented.
Byrne and Hallett are among hundreds of Rock County seniors, 60 and older, who rely on the meal program for their most important and nutritious meal of the day, at seven sites throughout the county.
Yet attendance countywide is down so much that it’s only about one third of what it was a decade ago and half of what it was five years ago. That’s why three county congregate meal sites—one in Janesville, one in Edgerton and another in Beloit—were closed last year.
“It just was not cost-effective to keep them open,” said Joyce Lubben, the county’s Council on Aging director.
Declining attendance “is part of a national trend,” said Ranee Goodroad, nutrition program supervisor.
It’s also due to the fact that “people are healthier, wealthier and more mobile with a lot more opportunities to eat elsewhere. Twenty-five years ago to go to fast-food restaurants was a big deal. Now people do it all the time,’’ Lubben said.
Whether the decline in attendance will continue is unknown.
“We’re hoping it is tapering off,” said Lubben, who noted that 27,347 meals were served in 2007—only 65 fewer than in 2006.
With an appetite to serve more seniors, the program is creating new opportunities by reaching out to more building sites where seniors live. That way they still can participate without having to drive, and there already is a bigger population in place, Lubben said.
A Participant Advisory Committee also is being developed, where a representative from each meal site will be involved to discuss concerns and make improvements if needed. The first committee meeting is Wednesday, Feb. 27, then quarterly after that, Goodroad said.
“We’re optimistic,” Lubben said about increased participation.
“We have to be,” she said.
And that makes Ray Benton grateful.
“Nobody can beat the nutritional balance of the food,” said the 83-year-old Janesville widow, who has attended three county meal sites over the years.
“Without this service, I’d have to eat out or make a sandwich when I’m not very good at cooking. It’s all pluses for me and one, decent square meal a day.”
The Rock County Council On Aging Nutrition Program operates these seven dining centers:
-- Faith Lutheran Church, 2116 Mineral Point Ave., Janesville.
-- Riverview Heights Apartments, 930 N. Washington St., Janesville.
-- The Gathering Place, 715 Campus Lane, Milton.
-- Grinnell Hall, 631 Bluff St., Beloit.
-- Scoville Center, 545 Public Ave., Beloit.
-- Community Center, 320 Fair St., Evansville.
-- Clinton Senior Center, 508 Front St., Clinton.
(Reservations must be made no later than noon the day before attending and on Friday for Monday by calling (608) 757-5474. There is no cost to attend, only a suggested donation of $3. Food also can be ordered to meet the needs for those on special diets—diabetic, low-sodium, vegetarian, bland and ground.)