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By Corrie M. Anders
Since hearing about a financial squeeze at 30th Street Senior Center, the lunchtime regulars had been lining up on the sidewalk three to four hours before noon. The buzz was "come early" or risk that the center might run out of the low-cost meals it serves every day except Sunday.
The seniors in line on a Monday in mid-June were mostly women, mostly gray-haired, and mostly Latino. A few relied on walkers, and several used canes. At 9 a.m. sharp, they surged into the elevator or climbed the stairs to the third-floor reception desk to snag one of the meal tickets.
That day, the 205 seniors who queued up were lucky. They all got to sit down for a hot plate of beef bourguignon, mashed potatoes, vegetables, cole slaw, and cantaloupe--and California veggie burgers for those who didn't eat meat. The diners were accommodated on this occasion, thanks to Supervisor Bevan Dufty and Mayor Gavin Newsom, who after calls from their constituents found ways to dip into the city budget to keep the lunch program running smoothly.
But the fact is the center was forced to cut meals and turn away as many as 40 seniors a day for several weeks this spring, because of fears of a budget shortage at the end of the fiscal year. And anxiety remains palpable among staff. They worry that local (and national) economic woes have placed an extra burden on those living on fixed incomes, and the number of seniors seeking meals at 30th Street is likely to grow faster than the budget to feed them.
"There's been a 20 percent increase in the number of seniors coming to 30th Street in the last three months, and I don't see that going down," says Valorie Villela, the center's longtime director. "The fact that more and more seniors are coming here means that if something doesn't change to increase our contract, we will be faced with turning [more] people away."
Food Program a Key Ingredient
That goes against the center's service mission. The center has helped draw thousands of San Franciscans in the years since 1979 when a group of Nicaraguan seniors started a small senior club in the building at 225 30th Street near Dolores Street. Its activities have grown to embrace a host of bilingual and bicultural programs, including health and recreational activities, and social services.
Two-thirds of the center's clients come from outer Noe Valley and the Mission District, while others show up from as far away as Visitacion Valley and the Golden Gate Panhandle. The center operates under the sponsorship of On Lok Inc., a non-profit seniors organization that receives annual funding from the city.
Filling empty stomachs plays a prominent role at the multipurpose facility. The center daily delivers some 200 hot meals to shut-in seniors--from the Bayview to South of Market neighborhoods--and provides an even larger number of meals for people who show up at the center itself, for two seatings at noon and 1 p.m. Seniors are asked for a voluntary $1.50 donation, for lunches cooked daily at the center's on-site kitchen.
Seniors Living on a Shoestring
Though she's been a center habitué for 20 years, Frances Burns, a retired secretary, found herself at the cutoff end of a too-long line one day during the spring budget crisis. "I had to go looking for a restaurant in the neighborhood," says Burns, who also volunteers at the center. "The least expensive was a Thai restaurant and it cost me $6.50."
Lena Herrera has been eating lunch at the center almost daily for the last six years. "It's my main meal of the day," she says. "It means a lot to me because I'm not able to cook for myself. There are a lot of seniors who don't have other people to help them."
Ben Lee, a retired waiter, rides two buses from the Golden Gate Park panhandle to take advantage of the bargain meal and to use the center's computers and exercise equipment. "This helps us [seniors] save money, especially nowadays."
Villela says that more than half of the center's clients are seniors with very low annual incomes of $10,000 or less. That "means they don't eat if they don't come here," she says.
Money Runs Out Each Year
The current money crunch started last year, when the center was told that it would get funds to prepare only 85,000 lunches through June of this year--not the 96,000 meals it served up the previous fiscal year. Back then, the center appealed to the Board of Supervisors, and Dufty helped locate $30,000, which allowed the center to plan for 93,000 meals this year. "It wasn't what we needed, but it was certainly better than 85,000 meals," says Villela.
By the end of May, however, Villela says she realized that so many newcomers were showing up for lunch that the center would soon "be 1,000 meals over our contract"--with little chance of city reimbursement. To avoid going over its budget, the center chose to cut on-site meals to 170 a day, from an average of 230 a day.
"We were turning away 40 people a day," says Villela. "When they'd get here, there were no meals left."
But as word of the situation got out and center officials lobbied City Hall for help, the center got some good news. First, on June 13 the city found emergency funds for the center "to be able to go ahead and serve above our contract till June 30," says Villela. Then, a week later, Dufty's office called to tell the center that a $30,000 budget cut planned for the 2008-09 fiscal year would be restored.
"With rising food costs, it couldn't come at a better time," said Dufty about the reprieve. Without the funds, there was no question "that seniors in our city would go hungry, and that's just not acceptable. I could not imagine any cuts to this program."
Saturday Meals Threatened
Villela says, however, that "the current budget is inadequate," because it maintains the status quo and does not take into account the rising number of seniors who are coming to the center for inexpensive, well-balanced meals. "The unmet need in our current contract is still a great concern."
She says the center needs an additional $20,000 to ensure that it is "out of the dark." With the extra money, the center could serve 240 meals a day "without changing our whole service, and prevent us from having to turn people away."
In a worst-case scenario, Villela says the center might have to eliminate the Saturday meals. That would be a catastrophe, says Marianne Hampton, chair of Friends of 30th Street Senior Center, a group of volunteers that supports the center.
"Seniors count on these meals," says Hampton. "And they'll go hungry the entire weekend."
The largesse of local residents could also make a difference, says Dufty. "I hope the [public] considers making a small donation."
Hampton says her Friends group has been working on a fundraising strategy. "I think we might have a campaign where we send letters to the neighborhood and ask for their help," she says. There are also out-of-state resources, and "we're trying to get them to help us."
Contributions can be made directly to the center or to the Friends. People can contact Hampton at Marianne.Hampton @comcast.net. For information about 30th Street Senior Center, call 415-550-2210 or go to www.onlok.org.