Forging friendships for 40 years
La Comida lunch program provides seniors with more than a square meal
Tom Barry was holding court at the La Comida lunch program in Palo Alto Tuesday, 12 seniors joining him at the long folding table, all intent on his words.
"Are we ready for trivia?" he asked, his voice reedy, like TV commentator Andy Rooney's.
Barry, a retired Palo Alto High School teacher, began quizzing his lunch mates on current events, starting with the Academy Awards.
"What do they call the awards in France?" he asked, referring to that country's equivalent of the Oscars.
The seniors, all older than 60 and many retired professionals like himself, offered their guesses: "Cannes Film Festival?" "Spirit Awards?" "Palme d'Or?"
Teasing them along, Barry disclosed that the answer was a five-letter word starting with the letter, "C." One woman asked for the second letter.
"You always want a hint, huh?" he joked.
For people like those gathered at Barry's trivia table, La Comida serves as a place both to dine and to mingle — and at a time of life when friends and intellectual stimulation can be harder to come by.
The nonprofit organization provides about 31,000 lunches a year at Avenidas senior center on Bryant Street, serving close to 1,000 people, according to the organization. This week, the program marked its 40th anniversary.
Started by the Rotary Club of Palo Alto in 1972, La Comida was the first "congregate" senior nutrition site in Santa Clara County. Now, there are 35 sites countywide. The county's population of people older than 60 is expected to grow by another 50 percent by 2020, according to the Council on Aging, Silicon Valley.
Supporters and participants say La Comida meets two critical needs of older adults: nutrition and friendship.
"Some folks, this is their major meal of the day," said Bill Blodgett, president of the La Comida board of directors.
A third of the diners are low-income, and the $2.50 voluntary contribution per meal fits within their budgets.
Even for those not struggling financially, many simply don't have the energy to shop for groceries and fix meals themselves or to go out to a restaurant, Blodgett said. Others — widowed and living by themselves — seek the companionship of people who share a similar stage of life and can relate to their experiences and interests, he added.
"They are alone now. This provides a very important way for people to be engaged," Blodgett said.
Palo Alto resident Betty Schneider, 90, comes to La Comida five days a week. A world traveler with a lively mind, she and her late husband, Jack, lived for more than 15 years in South Africa. She is currently writing two books, one about apartheid as seen through the eyes of her black cleaning woman.
Schneider's fondness for meeting others was evident during a recent lunch. One man at her table, who had been fairly quiet, overheard her discussing Cambridge, Mass., and asked if she'd lived there.
Schneider swiveled her head and set her blue eyes on him.
"Yes, I did," she said, leaning in slightly and grinning, like she'd just disclosed a secret. "Did you?"
Friendships extend beyond the lunch hour for some people. Schneider said she's attended several theater productions with one man she met at La Comida, and she welcomed another to visit her home a few times.
The trivia table is one of her favorite parts of lunch at La Comida, though.
"We fight pretty hard to get in there," she said of the table, noting that diners pull up chairs or stand at its edges.
Ninety-three percent of seniors responding to a December 2010 La Comida survey said the lunch program helps them maintain their independence. A greater percentage reported feeling healthier and happier because of the socializing it affords them.
Mary Ruth Batchelder, the program's site manager for the past 10 years and one of its four staff members, said she's seen people blossom through La Comida.
"We get a lot of people who come after they've a lost a spouse. ... I've seen new people come to volunteer and to dine that, you know, are a little bit down in the mouth, and they become part of a community," she said.
"That's why the program was originally designed. The 'congregate' dining is good for their mental health and just as important as the meals," she said.
The program offers lunches every weekday, cooked in the kitchen onsite. Each meal includes a salad, entrée, dessert and drink and is prepared by a staff of three.
Volunteer musicians provide entertainment most days of the week, playing the grand piano tucked into one corner of the brightly lit room or bringing their own instruments.
If conversation is food for the mind, then music, apparently, is food for the spirit.
"Some people love to sing" with the musicians, said Blodgett, who volunteers along with his wife. "Some people, whenever they get half a chance, they dance."
The program operates on a budget of more than $235,000, funded in large part by the County of Santa Clara through its Senior Nutrition Program, Batchelder said. The City of Palo Alto contributes about 10 percent of the budget.
Private donations help with expenses including personnel and a free shuttle that picks up frail or disabled diners from their homes.
Back at the trivia table, Barry once again turned his attention to France, inquiring about a word that the country's prime minister recently banned from official documents.
It was a word popular in World War I, Barry hinted.
"It came from a song a soldier sang in WWI," Barry said.
Immediately, a slight man with closely cropped white hair began to croon the long-forgotten tune. Recognition spread across the faces around the table.
"Oh, Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez-vous?" he sang, as others smiled. "Hinkey-dinkey, parlez-vous?"
Editor's note: The French equivalent of the Oscar is the "Cesar" award. And the banned word in France is "mademoiselle."
Editor Jocelyn Dong can be emailed at email@example.com.