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.