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Every weekday around noon at the Downtown Oakland Senior Center, elderly people who want a nutritious meal can come get one in the cafeteria for $3.75, or however much they can afford. The lunches are brought to the center by volunteers and staff members from Spectrum Community Services, a nonprofit which assists low-income families and seniors. Around 20 people will come to any given meal, and there are a lot of regulars, according to Juan Sosa, who checks people in at the meals. Sosa says that earlier in the week, a man who comes regularly turned 100, and everyone enjoyed a birthday cake.

Sosa’s photo of the 100-year old man on his birthday at the Downtown Oakland Senior Center meal, with his plates of finished food in front of him.

Each meal is planned by a registered dietician, and includes foods like tomato Florentine soup, Brussels sprouts, whole wheat pasta and salmon in a lemon caper sauce. Each meal comes with milk, and there’s always a chef salad (even a vegetarian version) if people don’t want the meal of the day. 

On a recent Friday, a table of regulars, some of whom know each other from playing bridge on afternoons during the week, are eating a Moroccan chicken dish with brown rice, salad and pineapple. They are happy to chat. “I like the meals because I think they’re good for us,” says Jean Mundy. “They have protein, carbohydrates and minerals.”

“There’s something about cooking for one person,” she continues. “It’s hard to cook well for one person. This helps us—it’s social eating with other people.”

The table of regulars. From left, Clair Styve, Marge Black and Jean Mundy.

Clair Styve, who is 95 and comes to the meal every day, echoed this thought about the lunch health benefits. “The food is good for us because it’s low-fat, low-salt,” he says. When he’s not eating at the center, he says that he mostly eats prepared foods, like TV dinners.

Juan checks people in for lunch at the Downtown Oakland Senior Center.

“I think the food is handy,” says Marge Black, who lives in Oakland. “I live alone and it’s nice to come out and have a meal prepared.”

The senior center’s program is unique, because it attacks two problems at once: hunger and social isolation among seniors. Cannon said that over the past year, she and her colleagues have spent a lot of time talking to older adults about hunger, and that it can be just one of many issues tied to living alone. “We hear all the time about the social isolation of older adults,” Cannon said. “And there’s a number of reasons for that, but as people get older, they may lose some of the support that they’ve developed throughout their lifetime.”The loss of social connections mean fewer people to bring them food, or help them access state programs like CalFresh..

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