LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Usually, Meals on Wheels means home delivery or lunch at a senior center. For more than 50 years, the federal government has funded the program to make sure older Americans get the nutrition they need. A project in Vancouver, Wash., is trying to use those funds for something new now - a retro, hip diner where seniors can go for eggs, coffee and community. Deena Prichep reports.
DEENA PRICHEP: At its core, a neighborhood diner is about neighborhood. Servers who make sure your coffee is always topped off, local businesspeople having meetings, regulars who know the whole menu, like Roland Batts.
ROLAND BATTS: The veggie hash is to die for. It's gourmet food. And as a senior, I enjoy it thoroughly.
PRICHEP: Batts is here three or four days a week. He knows the staff, jokes with the chef.
BATTS: We enjoy food, and we enjoy company. And this is the place to come.
AUTUMN ZUKASKUS: They play Frank Sinatra in the mornings, and it makes me so happy. Eggs and Frank Sinatra, perfect breakfast.
PRICHEP: Autumn Zukaskus (ph) loves the vibe, as well as the biscuits and gravy. But when young people like Zukaskus reach for their credit card, seniors like Chris Bingenheimer, pull out a little green dining card.
CHRIS BINGENHEIMER: And if you can donate, you do. If you don't, you don't. And it's no big deal to them.
PRICHEP: That's because the entire diner is a project of Meals on Wheels. If you look closer, you'll notice a few things. The chairs are in casters to scoot out easily if they need to make space for a wheelchair. The coffee cups have large handles to accommodate arthritic fingers.
Suzanne Washington is the CEO of the local organization Meals on Wheels People, which serves about 5,000 meals a day, mostly home delivery and about a third in senior centers. But people don't always want to go to a senior center.
SUZANNE WASHINGTON: We heard lots of folks say it was just too much of a stigma to go.
PRICHEP: Some baby boomers think senior centers are just for their grandparents, or they're still working and can't come in for lunchtime. So Washington thought, why not try a restaurant?
WASHINGTON: A restaurant that is intergenerational. It's good food. And at the same time, the paying public can help offset the costs of those in our program.
PRICHEP: There's a slightly different menu for participating seniors, like adding a fruit cup or a glass of milk to meet nutritional requirements. And Washington says some regular menu items aren't part of the program.
WASHINGTON: Because we can never make eggs benedict meet regulations. It just doesn't work.
PRICHEP: But the menu is still delicious. And the diner's been averaging 140 subsidized meals each month. And people are signing up for Meals on Wheels through the diner at a faster rate than at senior centers. Manoj Pardasani is a provost and professor of social work at Hunter College. He says the decline in senior centers is concerning because they're about more than just food.
MANOJ PARDASANI: This is where I get to talk to people. I engage with society. I get benefits from it, and other people benefit from me.
PRICHEP: Pardasani says that losing community engagement is bad for both mental and emotional health. As isolation goes up, so do depression and anxiety.
PARDASANI: The core belief behind meals is the socialization aspect. We're human beings. We've been socialized to be social animals.
PRICHEP: And the diner is a social place. Young people like Amber Zukaskus come for that, just as much as the little pies.
AMBER ZUKASKUS: Everyone here is so nice, and they pay everybody a living wage. And so all your tips just go to donations for Meals on Wheels, which is amazing. And that's something I want to give money to.
PRICHEP: And it's money that helps support neighbors, like Chris Bingenheimer.
BINGENHEIMER: Staff is very friendly. They don't look down on you because you're with the Meals on Wheels program. They treat you kindly, and the service is impeccable.
PRICHEP: Bingenheimer is a senior using Meals on Wheels. And at the diner, he's also just a guy sitting with his friend, having a good breakfast. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep at the diner in Vancouver, Wash.
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