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By Heather World
Since early spring, the seniors who congregate for lunch at the Noe Valley Senior Center have felt queasy, knowing their low-cost meal program was set to end July 1, due to planned city budget cuts.
But their digestion improved slightly in June.
Mid-month, the group received news that the senior lunch program will continue through July 31, thanks to meal provider Project Open Hand, which offered to pay the cost of the extra food delivery and preparation. The last-minute reprieve gives neighbors time to lobby the Board of Supervisors to restore the program's funding as well as raise money to keep the lunches going.
"This indicates the importance that Open Hand places on this particular group and how it serves the seniors who come here," says Rev. Keenan Kelsey, pastor of the Noe Valley Ministry, which donates its large, brightly lit space on the ground floor of the church at 1021 Sanchez Street.
Project Open Hand runs 17 city-financed senior lunch sites across San Francisco, and the Noe Valley Senior Center is one of the smallest, serving about 20 to 25 diners each day, five days a week. The program was one of four Open Hand sites facing cutbacks because of low enrollment relative to other sites.
At the Noe Valley site (and others), people over 60 pay a suggested donation of $2, for a rotating menu of beef stew, baked fish, and turkey Sloppy Joes. The seniors socialize over their 12:30 p.m. lunch, and on Fridays they play card games and Scrabble.
The local program's small size belies its large impact, says Jim Illig, director of government relations for Open Hand.
Not only is it a help for those on fixed incomes, "it's essential to attract people out of the house and out of isolation.... It's keeping them supported in their homes," Illig says.
Wendy Cohen, Open Hand's site coordinator at the Ministry, agrees. "This site has been here for so many years. People have made friends here, and it's hard for them to start something new. I would hate for it to close."
Small and Tight-Knit
Helen Yturriaga, 95, has been coming to the lunches since their inception two decades ago, walking or taking the bus from her home on Chattanooga Street.
"If I wasn't coming here, I wouldn't be going anywhere," she said as she tucked into a chicken salad sandwich at a recent senior lunch. "It's a wonderful meal with very nice people and very good company."
Across the table, Jersey Street resident Frances Brett, nearly 80, says she brought her parents to the lunches back in the 1980s. She's been coming to the senior center herself since moving into the family home in 1998.
"It's not that much fun cooking for one person," says Brett, a widow. "The meals here are nutritious and good."
The group is small and tight-knit, Brett says. When they learned of the pending cuts, they began to exchange phone numbers so they could stay in touch.
Times Are Tough
The city rationalizes the cuts by saying seniors can go to other sites--like 30th Street Senior Center or the Castro Senior Center on Diamond Street--but Cohen worries that older seniors like Yturriaga will choose not to travel over hills or long distances.
"You can't talk people into that," she said while setting up tables and laying down cloths as someone played classical music on the church piano.
Cohen knows the Noe Valley crowd well, having served thousands of lunches at the Ministry over her dozen years with the program.
"There've been scares in the past, but times are really tight now," she said.
Kelsey and the diners point out that Cohen does more than serve food.
"Wendy visits people in the hospital, makes home calls, and goes way above and beyond, supporting this group of people," Kelsey says. "You get a lot back for what the city puts into it in the health of the seniors."
Noe Costs $30,000 a Year
Project Open Hand Executive Director Tom Nolan spoke to the assembled diners June 17 to let them know the nonprofit would use its own fundraising proceeds to keep the center open one more month while the Board of Supervisors decides what to add back to the budget.
He explained that the city's 20-year-old senior meal program is funded through the Department of Aging and Adult Services, which is being asked to make $7 million in cuts this fiscal year.
Laboring under those constraints, the Office on Aging required Open Hand to cut or reduce hours at its four least well attended sites. Noe Valley and the Joseph Lee site in the Bayview were both targeted to be dropped. The group also proposed to cut weekend lunches at the Visitacion Valley site and Sundays at the site in Aquatic Park.
Open Hand's Illig says the Noe Valley site costs almost $30,000 a year to operate five days a week. Though he is anxious to save the program, he is not sure about the group's chances.
"We've got some friends in high places," Illig says. "The question is whether or not this is high enough on the [supervisors'] priority list."
Open Hand joined several rallies in May, including a "Silver Tsunami" at City Hall, to protest cuts to senior services.
While there is hope that city funding will come through, the Ministry is looking ahead to see how it can help.
Pastor Kelsey has offered to track pledges or hold people's donations in trust for an alternative food program, if necessary.
"We want to include a senior center in our ministry, and we will do as much as we can do to do that," she said. If Open Hand does not find funding, the Ministry might be able to offer its space for socializing and possibly one meal a week.
Meanwhile, the seniors and Open Hand are working to attract more diners. Kelsey says the Ministry space can accommodate more people, and she hopes the group will grow in order to avoid next year's cuts.
"We need to encourage people to bring their seniors, and seniors to bring friends, to build up the community so it is seen as more viable and a good use of funds," Kelsey says.
For herself, Yturriaga has spread the word to friends, as well as to people she meets on the bus.
Westwood Terrace resident Lois Hoskins learned about the site from a friend, and now invites her neighbors, telling them the Noe Valley site is relaxed and friendly.
"Other places you have to be served, or there's no beverage until the food comes!" says Hoskins.
How to Help Local Seniors
There are several ways you can help save the senior lunch program at the Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez Street.
* Call or e-mail Supervisor Bevan Dufty at 415-554-6968 or Bevan.Dufty @sfgov.org (or call or e-mail all the supervisors, if you can) to voice your support for restoring funding to the Noe Valley and other Open Hand sites.
* Donate money to the Noe Valley Ministry to fund the local program. (Money will be returned if the program's funding is restored, Pastor Keenan Kelsey says.)
* Encourage seniors to attend the lunch program at the Ministry. It is available to anyone over 60 for a suggested donation of $2 per meal, Monday through Friday, with food served at 12:30 p.m. Please call ahead to the Noe Valley Senior Center, 415-648-1030, to ensure that Open Hand reserves enough meals.