BRATTLEBORO—It all started with the idea that serving a daily nutritious meal to area seniors was too important a function to be left to the whims of bureaucrats and politicians.
Ten years and about 400,000 meals later, Brattleboro Senior Meals is going strong in the kitchen at the Brattleboro Senior Center in the basement of the Gibson-Aiken Center.
Included in their 600 meals per week are noon lunches served Monday through Friday, breakfasts on Tuesdays and Fridays, and the 70 meals delivered daily by the Meals on Wheels program in Brattleboro and surrounding towns.
Brattleboro Senior Meals Executive Director Chris McAvoy said she has been involved with the meals program since 1997, when it still operated under the auspices of the regional Council on Aging.
“There were lots of strings attached,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of leeway to do things the way we wanted.”
And one of those things was serving meals. McAvoy said there was increased pressure from the council and the federal government to hold down costs, including outsourcing the cooking of the meals.
That idea did not go over well and, in 2002, one volunteer decided to take matters into his own hands.
“Greg Propster took the ball and ran with it,” said McAvoy. “It was his idea to create our own senior meals organization.”
Through the work of Propster and other volunteers, Brattleboro Senior Meals became its own nonprofit entity in 2003. It served its first meal on Oct. 1, 2004.
The organization has a $250,000 annual budget. While it receives some of the federal funds that used to go to the Council on Aging, it relies heavily on grants and donations.
Board chair Kathryn Turnas II said fundraising has been difficult and, as with every other nonprofit in the Brattleboro area, “there is more and more demand and less and less money available.”
The Senior Meals program prides itself on the quality of its meals. Head cook Marie Willette makes many of the daily offerings from scratch, said McAvoy.
“Marie is a great cook,” she said.
Willette has good ingredients to work with, as the program buys fresh and local food whenever possible. She gets many of their fruits and vegetables from the Vermont Foodbank.
And the meals are changing, too.
McAvoy said the program gets requests for vegetarian and gluten-free options, as well as meals designed for diabetic or heart-healthy diets.
“We’re constantly reviewing the menus,” she said.
But the biggest challenge is the changing demographics. With many people in their 60s and 70s still in the workplace, it is tough to get people to a sit-down meal at noon.
Plus, said former board member Chuck Crowther, there is “a stigma attached to Senior Meals. Some people don’t want to come because they don’t want to be with a bunch of ‘old people.’”
But former board member Marya Koskoris thinks people are missing out by not coming to the noon meal.
“I live alone and I can cook for myself, but I like getting out and coming downtown to be with other people and get a good meal,” she said.
“I like the sociability. I eat here regularly and have good friends here. It forces you to get out and socialize.”
The reality, said McAvoy, is that the noon meals are open to people of all ages. The only difference is that diners over 60 pay a suggested donation of $3.50, and those younger pay $6 for the meal.
“We’re the best-kept secret in town,” she said.