The senior hot lunch program La Comida is expanding into a new location in downtown Palo Alto this year as the nonprofit continues its search for a long-term home.
Program operators said the nonprofit will start catering hot lunches in the dining room of the Palo Alto Masonic Center on Florence Street sometime this month while maintaining its kitchen and dining room at the southern end of town, where it now serves about 140 lunches a day in the senior apartment complex Stevenson House on Charleston Road.
The lunches — open to anyone 60 and older, regardless of residence or income — have become a vibrant social hub for many older adults. A recent Hanukkah lunch, featuring latkes and brisket, drew nearly 180 patrons, and a "holiday party" lunch of rib roast drew almost 200.
Lunch-goers are asked to contribute $3 per meal — only a fraction of the real $8-$10 cost, according to La Comida Manager Mary Ruth Batchelder. The program is additionally supported by private donations, the city of Palo Alto and state and federal funding administered through Santa Clara County.
"The food is really great and the people are great," said Pete Way of Sunnyvale during a lunch in mid-December at Stevenson House. Way, a retired engineering contractor, was deep in conversation with Palo Alto resident Henry Thielmann. The two had hit upon the fact that, during their careers, they both had done contract work for NASA.
"It's good conversation," Way said. "As you get older, pretty soon you don't have anybody your age. I'm 80 years old. Everybody's working and you don't have the chance to communicate. I love to sit and talk to these people — we've got a lot of stuff to talk about."
Though serving at Stevenson House for the past 15 months, the 46-year-old La Comida program has been without a permanent home since being displaced in 2017 from the Avenidas senior center on Bryant Street, which is now undergoing redevelopment. (While co-located for decades, La Comida and Avenidas have always been separate entities.)
It moved to Stevenson House in September 2017 under a one-year agreement and continues to operate there.
"When we were downtown, people would say, 'When are you going to serve south Palo Alto? We need something for south Palo Alto,'" Batchelder said. "And now, here we are, and sure enough it panned out. A lot of folks do come from this side of town, and we're not surprised."
Because the service area is smaller at Stevenson House, staff and volunteers must quickly clear and re-set tables for a second seating.
On a recent Wednesday the bustling dining room was filled to capacity with 12 tables and 70 place settings. Volunteer August Mozart tapped out jazzy background tunes on a grand piano in the corner.
The south Palo Alto location has attracted new patrons, Batchelder said, and some people who ate at the Avenidas site continue to attend as well.
"The crosstown shuttle has been a great service for our clientele because it runs directly from downtown to Stevenson House," Batchelder said.
For the new service downtown, meals will be prepared in the Stevenson House kitchen, transported and served hot at the downtown location.
"We're going to try it and see how it goes," Batchelder said.
The group currently is seeking new volunteers to help with daily setup in the Masonic Center, which will typically take about two hours, she added. Volunteers can work as few as one lunch shift a week, occasional Saturday evenings or as many as five days a week. It's very flexible, she said.
Longtime volunteer Bill Blodgett of Menlo Park comes twice a week.
"You can't help but get kind of attached to the seniors, seeing them day in and day out and watching them grow and change," said Blodgett, a retiree from HP whose wife and college-age daughters also sometimes help out.
"Obviously we primarily serve meals, but we think that's almost kind of secondary to the social interaction that goes on. It's just heartwarming to see so many people coming together, enjoying themselves and obviously interacting. And there's also a lot of camaraderie among the volunteers."
Volunteer coordinator Ingrid Lai of Palo Alto began volunteering herself after going through her father's calendar-diary when he died in 2012.
"I looked through it and found that when he was alive, he went to La Comida for lunch very frequently," she said. "He'd write, 'I met a nice person today' or 'They gave me an apple, and I brought it home for a snack.' It brought me to tears."
Lai is now a full-time volunteer, dividing her time among La Comida (three times a week), Escondido School, Momentum for Mental Health and the Rose Kleiner Center adult day care program.
"I really enjoy it, and I thank God for giving me this time where I can help people," she said.
Michael Stillger, president of the Palo Alto Masonic Temple Association, said providing low-cost space to La Comida is one of several charitable projects of his group, which also includes support for education in East Palo Alto through a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula.
More information about La Comida is available at lacomida.org.