New walk-up service for seniors at Meals on Wheels in downtown El Cajon

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For 54 years, Meals on Wheels in San Diego has been delivering food to people over the age of sixty. One of the longest running Meals on Wheels programs in the United States. Each day 2,600 volunteers throughout San Diego transport meals to seniors from San Ysidro to Oceanside and out to Jacumba. Living costs, mobility and physical limitations are just a few contributing factors that create the need for this service, and now the City of El Cajon and Meals on Wheels have made sustenance more accessible, even social for the seniors of El Cajon.

For 54 years, Meals on Wheels in San Diego has been delivering food to people over the age of sixty. One of the longest running Meals on Wheels programs in the United States. Each day 2,600 volunteers throughout San Diego transport meals to seniors from San Ysidro to Oceanside and out to Jacumba. Living costs, mobility and physical limitations are just a few contributing factors that create the need for this service, and now the City of El Cajon and Meals on Wheels have made sustenance more accessible, even social for the seniors of El Cajon.

Meals on Wheels opened an East County Service Center on Chambers Street in downtown El Cajon that sells meals to seniors. A one-time membership fee of $10 is required (a free meal comes with the paid fee), and seniors are able to walk in from 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. on week days and 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays for prepared, healthy lunches, dinner entrees, snacks and beverages. 

The Meals on Wheels service center, equipped with refrigerators large enough to hold the packaged meals and snacks for a growing number of members, is street level and beneath the new Solterra Housing Complex, where income-qualifying seniors ages 55+ reside. Solterra’s residents earn between 30-60 percent of the Area’s Median Income (AMI). The housing complex opened with a waiting list. 

“The new concept that we’re trying out is to be able to be in a low income senior housing building in a downtown area, a perfect space for us. The city came up with this, we used to be in an industrial area. They [the City of El Cajon] approved a new senior building and put us in touch with the builder. We came to an agreement and we then got a grant from the Gary and Mary West Foundation,” said Debbie Case, president and CEO of Meals-on-Wheels Greater San Diego, Inc.  “Let’s start a membership program for people who live in the building and the neighborhood so they can come in and buy fresh meals that are made appropriate for seniors. All this food works for all their types of diets,” Case said.

Lunch and a beverage goes for $4 and $4 will also get a senior dinner with roll, butter and a beverage. To purchase lunch and dinner plus a beverage is only $7.00. A la Carte items are fifty cents. “For every 10 lunches, they get one free and for every 10 dinners—one free. That way it keeps their costs down,” said Case.

Ingredients are purchased locally whenever possible and made from scratch by Meals-on-Wheels chefs and staff at the Meals-on-Wheels administration center near Old Town. Local chefs, one of which was Ysabel Cruz of Barrio Star, created the menus. Cruz sat down with Case and went through her cookbook page by page, adapting her recipes for seniors and their dietary needs—high blood pressure, medication restrictions, restricted sodium content, and more. The nutrition information for the adapted recipes was then compiled by culinary and nutrition students from San Diego Mesa College.

From location to specification to collaboration, the aging population in East County who are “food insecure” have a place to go, designed for them and their budgeted food dollars, where they will find a variety of cuisine (meals go on a six-week rotation), and even make friends with Meals-on-Wheels employees. 

““They like to come down here and talk to the girls. Everyone, they each have their own story,” Case said about the elder visitors who are on a first-name basis with the Meals-on-Wheels office staff. Food brings them in, but camaraderie grows with the older, diverse East County population. Meals-on-Wheels has a popular Latin entree rotation. If someone wants something other than pork, or beef, the menu rotation was created to provide options. “It’s called opt-out, it’s a way to order what you want,” Case explained. “We’re all about choices. If a senior doesn’t like what we’re serving, then they’re not going to eat it, and then they’re not going to get their nutrition, and that’s defeating the purpose.”

The Meals-on-Wheels East County Service Center is located at 131 Chambers Street, Suite 100. For more information about the program or services, go to www.meals-on-wheels.org.

New walk-up service for seniors at Meals on Wheels in downtown El Cajon

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