Nonprofit brings farm-to-table fare to Encinitas seniors

It was almost noon and the kitchen was busy serving up a packed house. On the menu? Meatloaf with wild rice pilaf, blue lake beans and salad. Others dined on roasted vegetable soup and roast beef sandwiches with caramelized onions and horsey sauce.

This scene may sound like it was from a popular Encinitas restaurant, but it recently played out at the Encinitas Community and Senior Center. The farm-to-table fare now on the menu is a far cry from many senior centers, where canned or frozen foods are the norm.

The nonprofit Kitchens for Good spearheaded the program to reach seniors who lack access to quality, affordable food. By doing so, the organization hopes to buck the trend of fewer seniors getting their meals from senior food programs.

“Participation in those programs is dropping off,” said Chuck Samuelson, who founded Kitchens for Good. “Of the 10,000 Baby Boomers that turn 60 every day, a large chunk of them have different expectations for their food. They want fresh, local and healthy. And those are words that typically aren’t used to describe senior meals.”

Samuelson launched Kitchens for Good last year, after a long career in hospitality in which he saw a lot of food wasted. The nonprofit plans to collect surplus and imperfect produce from local farmers and wholesalers, diverting it from the landfill. Rescued produce would then become part of meals — overripe tomatoes could become tomato sauce, for instance.

“For the last 15 years, I’ve been looking at this issue of how much food we waste as Americans, and then how much hunger there is,” Samuelson said. “There’s a connection there.”

The nonprofit’s mission goes beyond feeding seniors and cutting down on waste. It’s also committed to purchasing produce from local farmers to support the region’s economy, instead of relying on goods that have been trucked in from distant places. And starting in January, the nonprofit will offer culinary training to underemployed and unemployed people, and these students will help prepare senior meals.

“We’re teaching people skills to earn a living, and that lifts them out of poverty,” Samuelson said. “Then they’re creating meals to feed the community, which in turn supports farmers. It’s full circle.”

Kitchens for Good on Oct. 1 began serving meals Monday through Friday at the Encinitas center, its first client. Samuelson anticipates another six or so contracts in the next few years.

“Encinitas was really the most-forward thinking,” he said. “They really thought that senior meals could be done better.”

Improved food has sparked increased demand at the Encinitas center. The nonprofit delivered 30 meals per day early on and is now up to about 50.

It’s key that low-cost meals are available at the center, because a county survey of seniors who eat there found that 25 percent are food insecure, meaning access to healthy food is limited by a lack of money or other resources. That’s according to Emily Rodgers, nutrition coordinator with the Encinitas Community and Senior Center.

For those ages 60 and over, there’s a suggested meal donation of $4, with a $6 cost per meal for those under 60.

“We’re starting to get more and more Baby Boomers coming in,” Rodgers said. “That’s what we’re trying to do — open it up to more people.”

The nonprofit prepares the meals every morning in San Diego and then they’re delivered to the Encinitas center in time for lunch. Center staff serves the meals.

“We don’t see cans of food anymore,” Rodgers said with a laugh.

Aviva Paley, the nonprofit’s director of programs, said it makes sense to offer mandarin oranges grown in San Diego County over those that are canned.

“San Diego has the most small- to medium-sized farms of any county in the entire U.S. so there are a lot of opportunities where we can connect farms to these senior meal programs.”

She added the nonprofit is in talks with San Diego-based Catalina Offshore to put local fish on the menu at the Encinitas center.

Senior Ralph Chesney has been dining at the center for 10 years. There’s been a “big upgrade” in the food ever since Kitchens for Good took over, he said.

“The portions are bigger, and I like the healthier options, like having more salads,” Chesney said.

Echoing him was volunteer Maria Lewis, who takes reservations for the program. She called the food “much tastier.”

Kitchens for Good got off the ground with seed money, but the goal is to be self-sustaining. The nonprofit has a catering business and the money generated from it goes back into its other programs.

“Rather than be the kind of program that has to continually beg for funding, we want to make a living on our own and drive revenue back,” Samuelson said.

Reservations for the program are required and can be made until 8 a.m. of the day you would like to have lunch — just call 760-943-2258. Check in for lunch by 11:30 a.m.

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