‘They do love the soups!’ What it takes to get hot meals to hungry seniors

“I like a hot meal, but nowadays I couldn’t pay the full price for one,” says Alan White. The 85-year-old is one of the 30 or so seniors who come every weekday to Steel Plaza Senior Apartments near downtown for a subsidized lunch. “I guess my favorite meal is old fashioned roast beef… but I’m really not fussy. If you put it in front of me, it disappears. But this is my main meal here.”

An estimated one million older adults in Los Angeles can’t afford to eat regular – let alone, healthy – meals. Low-income seniors are especially vulnerable as they are often faced with having to decide between paying rent, buying food or medicine, or other expenses. About 600 of these elders rely on the free daily hot lunches provided by St. Barnabas Senior Services’ nutrition program at one of their 14 congregate meal sites around the city, including Steel Plaza.

The meals are prepared from scratch every day. A small army of managers, cooks, kitchen helpers, and truck drivers work to get them onto tables across LA. St. Barnabas also contracts with Morrison Health Care, which houses a kitchen inside a nondescript building in an industrial neighborhood in Northridge. There, cooks start prepping at 3:30 am each day, then they’re delivered by a fleet of 16 trucks to senior centers, and churches. An additional 600 meals are delivered to homebound seniors.

Everyone involved in the process is proud of the work they do.

“I care about this program because of the seniors. My mother is a senior. I love doing this,” says Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Morrison Health Care, Nader Poursadeghi. “And you know, some of the seniors, this is the only meal they have.”

“I have learned that for many of the seniors… this is the only hot meal that they eat… so they’re not too crazy about when we send them chef’s salad or Chinese salads. They want the hot meals. And most of the seniors love the soups… they do love the soups!” – Pedro Alfaro, 65, Executive Chef, Morrison Healthcare
“Today’s menu is vegetable minestrone soup, spaghetti with meat sauce, italian vegetable blend, and for dessert is cantaloupe. And milk. We deliver to around 80 places – so, 3500 meals. Half of them are home delivery meals, and half of them are congregate meals. Congregate goes in the hotel pans, and a driver takes it to the senior centers, and then they dish it out.” – Nader Poursadeghi, 62, Senior Director Food and Nutrition Services, Morrison Healthcare
“We make everything fresh. We don’t use canned fruit… everything’s fresh. They come in at 3:30 in the morning… they turn the equipment on, and they start prepping. Now they are dishing out the soup, that’s going to go to a site. And this chef is making the spaghetti meat sauce. One does the soup, one does the meat sauce, and another does the vegetables.” Nader Poursadeghi, 62, Senior Director Food and Nutrition Services, Morrison Healthcare
There is constant motion in the kitchen as the staff must ensure that meals meet temperature requirements, and the day’s delivery orders are met.
Refugio Lechuga (right) and Carlos Giese load the van for delivery to several congregate meal sites. Timing is key, as there are strict temperature requirements and no want’s to keep the seniors waiting for too long for their meal.
Morrison delivery driver Refugio Lechuga wheels in the day’s hot lunch.
Site manager Donald Hong takes a temperature reading as soon as the food is brought into the kitchen.
Hong and assistants, Domalina Pugrad and Willie Ivey Jr., help get the food out as quickly as possible to the seniors.
Domalina Pugrad immigrated from the Philippines a little over ten years ago, and is now working part time as an assistant at Steel Plaza’s daily senior lunch.
Seniors receive a number when they arrive, and are served in order.
“It’s convenient, and my HMO is right across the street. There’s plenty of food, and ordinarily it’s quite good. I guess my favorite meal is old fashioned roast beef, and I also like it when they serve fish, because that’s healthy. But, ordinarily, I’m really not fussy. If you put it in front of me, it disappears. But, this is my main meal here.” – Alan White, 85
“My job is really quite interesting… I really love my job. Most of the time I have 30-40 people here everyday… and I enjoy talking with them, and serving their meals to them. My life is with them.” – Donald Hong, 80, site manager.
For adults over the age of 60, the cost is a $2 donation, though no one is turned away if they can’t pay. Seniors begin arriving as early as 9:00 am to visit with friends, read the newspaper, or relax before the meal is served shortly after 11:00 am.
It (this job) makes me feel a sense of worth… it really lifts my spirits. I live alone, and I don’t come out that much… so this gives me something to do. I’m getting more out of it than just feeding the seniors. It helps my spirit!” – Willie Ivey Jr., 61, nutrition assistant
“I care about this program because of the seniors. My mother is a senior. I love doing this… and you know, some of the seniors, this is the only meal they have… And I love this job. It’s challenging, but I feel like we’re doing something right for the people.” Nader Poursadeghi, 62, Senior Director