Dozens of needy older adults in the Pasadena area are receiving free restaurant meals once a week thanks to a newly formed collaboration among the Pasadena Senior Center, ALTAeats Restaurant and Harvest Village Ministries, all of which were aware that many older adults are experiencing difficulty getting enough food since the coronavirus hit.
“In some cases, during our regular wellness calls to older adults through our Telephone Reassurance Program, some people said they hadn’t eaten a full meal in up to four days,” said Akila Gibbs, executive director of the Pasadena Senior Center. “In other cases, loved ones of older adults called the center to let us know about these emergency situations.”
When the COVID-19 crisis began, the city of Pasadena notified the center that it is an essential community service that needs to stay open. Since then its main focus has been providing vital social services to older adults in need, including the delivery of food and other necessities.
Gibbs said many are housebound and their usual caregivers can’t shop for them anymore under the circumstances. Others have in the past depended on family members who are unemployed currently and lack the funds to spend on extra groceries.
The Pasadena Senior Center now has a list of nearly 200 local older adults who need emergency food deliveries. Boxes with a combination of free food and other necessities, such as toilet paper, are delivered to help those with emergency needs.
Early in the operation, the center’s industrial-size refrigerator broke down. Initially it was a problem for the center’s emergency food pantry, and then it opened the door to a greater opportunity. Marie Cantor, the center’s associate director of foundation relations, decided to see if a local restaurant might be able to help. She reached out to one of her favorites, ALTAeats on Allen Avenue in Pasadena.
ALTAeats owner Paul Ragan didn’t have a spare refrigerator, but told Cantor he had been looking for a way to provide food to first responders, health care workers and people who were struggling to get enough to eat. Sharing food with needy recipients was an idea he developed with his daughter as one of her school projects years earlier. They called it Emma’s Pantry, but they hadn’t figured out a way to make it work.
Ragan was ready to have his staff prepare meals at the restaurant. All he needed, he told Cantor, was someone to identify those with the greatest need and have the meals delivered. The Pasadena Senior Center was ready to do both. Staff at the center could pinpoint the neediest seniors on the emergency food list, and, thanks to Harvest Village Ministries volunteers, it already had a distribution network.
Harvest Village Ministries is a small church that traditionally has focused on violence prevention by conducting workshops at local high schools. When the coronavirus crisis hit, church leaders realized they needed to change course. They decided they could defuse potentially stressful or violent situations in homes by delivering food to those in need. Myhisha Myles, the church’s director of operations, reached out to the Pasadena Senior Center and other groups and offered to facilitate food delivery.
The offer was just what the Pasadena Senior Center needed to connect meals from Ragan’s ALTAeats restaurant to older adults with food emergencies. Every Thursday, Ragan’s staff prepares the meals, which are then brought to the center. Carmen Macias, the center’s social services director, organizes neighborhood routes with the names and addresses of recipients. When Harvest Village Ministries drivers arrive at the center, each takes a route and a map and heads out to make their contactless deliveries.
Initially Ragan committed to providing 40 meals every Thursday for distribution. The following week he doubled that to 80 meals, and the next week he upped it to 90. He’s also providing meals for health care workers and first responders. When he heard the staff at a local convalescent home was locked down due to the virus outbreak, he provided 50 meals for them as well.
Ragan is picking up the tab for the food himself, and a few of his regular guests have given him donations for the cause.
“I realized that people are hungry, people are out of work and they’re out of money,” Ragan said. “I could help because what I do is feed people.”
Although the ALTAeats dining room is closed during the COVID-19 crisis, he offers one set meal a day, which he calls a “Roastie,” that’s available for pickup. His income doesn’t come close to what it was before, but this keeps his four chefs working. His servers take turns working shifts to bring “Roasties” to customers’ cars, and Ragan makes sure his employees are paid. He has applied for California Governor Gavin Newsom’s “Great Plates” program that helps fund restaurants providing food for the needy, but he hasn’t heard back about his application yet.
Noor restaurant at Paseo Colorado is also contributing food for hungry older adults. Gibbs said Noor donates 25 to 30 quarts of soup weekly to the Pasadena Senior Center to be delivered in boxes of food.
“Our older adults call and say how delicious the meals from ALTAeats and the soup from Noor are and how thankful they are. It’s a really big hit,” Gibbs added. “The restaurants are so kind to provide this food.”
Meals are also delivered by Pasadena Senior Center staff as well as volunteers consisting of families and others.
She said the Pasadena Senior Center purchases a huge amount of food and other supplies to give away in the boxes, and the restaurant meals help stretch the center’s food budget. The center’s refrigerator has been replaced.
“Still, I’m nervous we could run out of money,” she said. “We’re a non-profit so we need to keep raising money so can continue to feed our most needy older Pasadenans.”
For more information about the programs and services of the Pasadena Senior Center, or to make a donation, visit www.pasadenaseniorcenter.org or call 626-795-4331.