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As demand grows, La Comida seeks new site for nutrition program

After finding a location for downtown distribution center, nonprofit hopes to expand dining services

Bill Blodgett, a La Comida board member, and Marie Ruth Batchelder, La Comida manager, prepare to hand a senior food at Stevenson House in Palo Alto on May 21, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

It's been a year of growth, adaptation and uncertainty for La Comida, the Palo Alto nonprofit that prepares and serves about 1,700 meals to seniors every week.

The pandemic had upended La Comida's traditional model — a dining hall where seniors eat and socialize in a communal setting — and forced it to pivot to distributing prepackaged meals at two drop-off locations: Stevenson House, the Charleston Road senior housing facility where La Comida normally hosts it meal program, and the Masonic Hall in downtown Palo Alto. It then partnered with Lytton Gardens, an assisted-living community, and the nonprofit Alta Housing to distribute additional meals to seniors with nutritional needs.

Demand for La Comida's services increased over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Bill Blodgett, co-president of La Comida's board of directors. Over the past year, it has served about 75,000 meals — a 75% increase over the prior year — to the roughly 800 seniors who participate in its programs. About 59% of the seniors are ages 75 or older and about 81% are from Palo Alto, Blodgett told the City Council during a May 17 presentation. In addition, it has been shipping meals.

"Clearly, growing food insecurity is particularly a problem among older adults," Blodgett said.

La Comida also has been forced to confront another dilemma. In October, the nonprofit learned that the Masonic Hall won't be extending its agreement with the organization for use of its space as a distribution point. At the May 17, Blodgett told the council that the nonprofit is looking for a new downtown location starting on June 1 — one that could accommodate the hundreds of seniors who live in north Palo Alto and who rely on its program.

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"Without a downtown location, nutritional risk and increased isolation will become a greater problem for a significant portion of the seniors we have served over the years," Blodgett told the council.

Since that meeting, the organization has received some good news. Blodgett told this news publication that La Comida has reached an agreement with the First United Methodist Church on Hamilton Avenue to use the church's courtyard for meal distribution. But while the partnership will allow La Comida to continue to distribute its prepackaged meals in a downtown location, much as it does today, it does not solve its long-term issue: the need to find space for congregate dining in northern Palo Alto.

Blodgett noted that with Santa Clara County recently entering the "yellow tier" of the state's Blueprint for a Safe Recovery and the state preparing to remove COVID-19 restrictions on June 15, the demand for social dining will return. The challenge, he said, is finding a facility with a commercial kitchen that will allow La Comida to prepare meals and have enough capacity for 80 diners.

The exterior of Avenidas' remodeled building, which kept the original architecture of the historic Birge Clark building, at 450 Bryant St. in Palo Alto. Embarcadero Media file photo taken in 2019 by Veronica Weber.

The ideal solution, he said, is Avenidas, the nonprofit that provides a host of senior services out of its recently renovated downtown headquarters on Bryant Street. The two nonprofits have a long history together, with La Comida running its nutrition program at the Avenidas site for nearly four decades. The partnership came to an end in 2017, once Avenidas moved ahead with its reconstruction project and made it clear that it would no longer have the space to accommodate La Comida's lunch program.

Blodgett stressed during this May 17 presentation that bringing La Comida back to Avenidas would allow Palo Alto to consolidate the nutrition program with the many classes and recreation programs offered by Avenidas.

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"It's not a coincidence or an accident that city-owned senior centers in Mountain View, Santa Clara, Campbell, Milpitas, Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Alviso all offer lunch programs and all the other senior services in one facility," he said.

He also noted in an interview that the conditions have changed since the last partnership between La Comida and Avenidas dissolved. Unlike in 2017, it now has a dining area with a commercial kitchen in Stevenson House. As such, it would not need to rely on the downtown location to accommodate the entire program.

But from Avenidas' perspective, La Comida's need for space is still too great to be accommodated in the Bryant Street building. To comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the building was redesigned to include a new elevator system and more accessible bathrooms, according to Kari Martell, a spokesperson for Avenidas. This resulted in a smaller dining room, she said.

"We're certainly very familiar with La Comida and its people, have great respect for the work they do and stand ready to help them and the people they serve," Martell wrote in an email. "For this specific request, though, we simply don't have the space available."

Martell said the Avenidas board of directors and its interim CEO John Sinks have discussed La Comida's needs and its renewed interest in serving meals at the Bryant Street location. In response, Martell said, Avenidas suggested three different ideas with which the senior-services organization can help.

"We offered to act as a distribution site for La Comida meals, we could explore having a La Comida meal option in our Cafe, or we could use our transportation program to drive seniors to the La Comida dining site."

The Firestation Cafe was added to Avenidas' Bryant Street building as part of its renovated center that debuted in 2019. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

The organization has been informed that those ideas "don't meet the socialization objectives of the La Comida program," Martell said, though Sinks has expressed to Palo Alto officials his nonprofit's interest in "keeping the ideas flowing." Blodgett said La Comida is also looking forward to "a good dialogue" with Avenidas.

"After having a good collaboration for years, I don't see any reason why that can't happen again," he said.

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As demand grows, La Comida seeks new site for nutrition program

After finding a location for downtown distribution center, nonprofit hopes to expand dining services

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, May 26, 2021, 2:52 pm

It's been a year of growth, adaptation and uncertainty for La Comida, the Palo Alto nonprofit that prepares and serves about 1,700 meals to seniors every week.

The pandemic had upended La Comida's traditional model — a dining hall where seniors eat and socialize in a communal setting — and forced it to pivot to distributing prepackaged meals at two drop-off locations: Stevenson House, the Charleston Road senior housing facility where La Comida normally hosts it meal program, and the Masonic Hall in downtown Palo Alto. It then partnered with Lytton Gardens, an assisted-living community, and the nonprofit Alta Housing to distribute additional meals to seniors with nutritional needs.

Demand for La Comida's services increased over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Bill Blodgett, co-president of La Comida's board of directors. Over the past year, it has served about 75,000 meals — a 75% increase over the prior year — to the roughly 800 seniors who participate in its programs. About 59% of the seniors are ages 75 or older and about 81% are from Palo Alto, Blodgett told the City Council during a May 17 presentation. In addition, it has been shipping meals.

"Clearly, growing food insecurity is particularly a problem among older adults," Blodgett said.

La Comida also has been forced to confront another dilemma. In October, the nonprofit learned that the Masonic Hall won't be extending its agreement with the organization for use of its space as a distribution point. At the May 17, Blodgett told the council that the nonprofit is looking for a new downtown location starting on June 1 — one that could accommodate the hundreds of seniors who live in north Palo Alto and who rely on its program.

"Without a downtown location, nutritional risk and increased isolation will become a greater problem for a significant portion of the seniors we have served over the years," Blodgett told the council.

Since that meeting, the organization has received some good news. Blodgett told this news publication that La Comida has reached an agreement with the First United Methodist Church on Hamilton Avenue to use the church's courtyard for meal distribution. But while the partnership will allow La Comida to continue to distribute its prepackaged meals in a downtown location, much as it does today, it does not solve its long-term issue: the need to find space for congregate dining in northern Palo Alto.

Blodgett noted that with Santa Clara County recently entering the "yellow tier" of the state's Blueprint for a Safe Recovery and the state preparing to remove COVID-19 restrictions on June 15, the demand for social dining will return. The challenge, he said, is finding a facility with a commercial kitchen that will allow La Comida to prepare meals and have enough capacity for 80 diners.

The ideal solution, he said, is Avenidas, the nonprofit that provides a host of senior services out of its recently renovated downtown headquarters on Bryant Street. The two nonprofits have a long history together, with La Comida running its nutrition program at the Avenidas site for nearly four decades. The partnership came to an end in 2017, once Avenidas moved ahead with its reconstruction project and made it clear that it would no longer have the space to accommodate La Comida's lunch program.

Blodgett stressed during this May 17 presentation that bringing La Comida back to Avenidas would allow Palo Alto to consolidate the nutrition program with the many classes and recreation programs offered by Avenidas.

"It's not a coincidence or an accident that city-owned senior centers in Mountain View, Santa Clara, Campbell, Milpitas, Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Alviso all offer lunch programs and all the other senior services in one facility," he said.

He also noted in an interview that the conditions have changed since the last partnership between La Comida and Avenidas dissolved. Unlike in 2017, it now has a dining area with a commercial kitchen in Stevenson House. As such, it would not need to rely on the downtown location to accommodate the entire program.

But from Avenidas' perspective, La Comida's need for space is still too great to be accommodated in the Bryant Street building. To comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the building was redesigned to include a new elevator system and more accessible bathrooms, according to Kari Martell, a spokesperson for Avenidas. This resulted in a smaller dining room, she said.

"We're certainly very familiar with La Comida and its people, have great respect for the work they do and stand ready to help them and the people they serve," Martell wrote in an email. "For this specific request, though, we simply don't have the space available."

Martell said the Avenidas board of directors and its interim CEO John Sinks have discussed La Comida's needs and its renewed interest in serving meals at the Bryant Street location. In response, Martell said, Avenidas suggested three different ideas with which the senior-services organization can help.

"We offered to act as a distribution site for La Comida meals, we could explore having a La Comida meal option in our Cafe, or we could use our transportation program to drive seniors to the La Comida dining site."

The organization has been informed that those ideas "don't meet the socialization objectives of the La Comida program," Martell said, though Sinks has expressed to Palo Alto officials his nonprofit's interest in "keeping the ideas flowing." Blodgett said La Comida is also looking forward to "a good dialogue" with Avenidas.

"After having a good collaboration for years, I don't see any reason why that can't happen again," he said.

Comments

Mama
Registered user
Crescent Park
on May 27, 2021 at 10:47 am
Mama, Crescent Park
Registered user
on May 27, 2021 at 10:47 am

How about putting a canopy over the small park on Lytton? That area is pretty useless. Could still be used for other events.


Logan Arenado
Registered user
another community
on May 27, 2021 at 6:45 pm
Logan Arenado, another community
Registered user
on May 27, 2021 at 6:45 pm

The small park on Lytton Avenue would be a good site for senior outdoor dining but it is also frequented by the PA homeless.

Would this pose a potential problem?


JS1
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 29, 2021 at 10:31 am
JS1, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 29, 2021 at 10:31 am

La Comida does not share space well. They want exclusive use of a commercial Kitchen and exclusive use of a dining room large enough to serve 80 or more people. This is likely why they are not able to operate out of the Masonic Hall, the Methodist Church or the Avenidas building. La Comida should consider leasing or buying a defunct restaurant space where they will have exclusive use of the space. Restaurant spaces are already equipped with kitchen facilities, food storage and dining facilities and there are many located in downtown Palo Alto. The former Lemonade space at University and High Street is currently for lease.


Annies biped
Registered user
Midtown
on May 29, 2021 at 6:45 pm
Annies biped, Midtown
Registered user
on May 29, 2021 at 6:45 pm

Suggesting that La Comida doesn't share well belies it's history. While colocated at Avenidas for 40 years La Comida used the kitchen from 8am to 2:30pm 5 days a week, and the dining room from 10:30 to 2:30. Avenidas frequently rented the space for other uses on the weekends, or had movies, classes and bridge groups in the late afternoon as well as early morning coffee meetings. Unfortunately when Avenidas remodeled the city owned Bryant Street facility, the dining room space went from an occupancy of 140 to an occupancy of less than 80, and the building was closed for two years while the renovations were being made. Avenidas went to Cubberley for the interim while La Comida went to Stevenson House on a more permanent basis. Cooking and serving at Stevenson House means La Comida no longer needs a large 140 occupancy dining room to serve seniors who live closer to the downtown area. Wouldn't it be great to have a downtown city sponsored senior center (Avenidas) that included the city & county sponsored senior nutrition program (La Comida) for downtown seniors?


JS1
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2021 at 8:08 pm
JS1, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 3, 2021 at 8:08 pm

Annie’s, The “La Comida does not share well” comment merely reflects the fact that La Comida is apparently not being welcomed back to share space where they have been located in the past. La Comida certainly offers a valuable service to local seniors. The problem is a real estate problem. La Comida needs a facility with both a commercial kitchen and a large dining room - and La Comida seems to want someone else to provide that kitchen/dining space to them at little to no cost. It is unrealistic to expect that other organizations will sacrifice such facilities (if they even have such facilities) for La Comida’s exclusive use. That is probably the reason that La Comida is looking for new space again. It is obvious that La Comida needs their own space and not shared space. La Comida board should start a capital campaign and/or they should approach the City or County for assistance. The more money that La Comida can raise on their own may provide greater motivation on the part of City or County to assist. The sooner that La Comida raises the funds, the sooner they can control their own fate.


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