Before the pandemic, the Columbia Senior Activity Center held events like garage sales, raffles and ice cream socials to raise money for its hot lunch program. The events helped subsidize the low lunch price.
But fewer seniors have been showing up since the Center reopened its dining room in September after being closed in March because of pandemic restrictions. Whether due to fear of COVID-19 or for other reasons, the drop in numbers has taken a toll.
Without events, and without enough seniors lining up for lunch, the Center is struggling to fund the program.
“For the numbers that we’ve got right now, we’re losing money,” said Lee Weinreich, president of the Center’s board of directors.
The Center’s annual donations are also down about 50%, Weinreich said. He compared the financial situation to eating seed corn.
“Farmers have corn they use to sow their fields,” he said. “But if you eat off of that, well, then you have less to sow until you don’t have anything anymore.”
This month, the Center, located at 1121 Business Loop 70 E. near Midas muffler shop, has been charging $5 for lunch to attract more patrons, Weinreich said. The Center used to charge $6.50 per lunch.
Without more funding, the Center may be forced to close the dining room and hot lunch program. The board of directors will meet Friday to discuss the situation and hear the treasurer reports. The board will make the decision about whether to close down the hot lunch program, Weinreich said.
About 30 patrons come for hot lunch on an average day, Weinreich said. Before the pandemic, the Center used to serve lunch to an average of 100 people per day.
Days with fried chicken on the menu seem most popular, both before and during COVID-19. Weinreich said there have been up to 60 patrons on those days even during the pandemic.
Center volunteers serve patrons from 10:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. each weekday. The dine-in option is open until 12:30 p.m., but patrons can get carry-out until 12:45 p.m. They can pay for a full lunch or only just select portions such as the entrée, soup, salad or dessert.
The hot lunch program is open to any Columbia resident, although most of the patrons are seniors.
At the Center’s entrance, a volunteer takes each person’s temperature when they enter. Masks and social distancing are required, and everyone is asked to provide contact information. First-time visitors are also asked to read a document explaining the risk of exposure agreement.
Patrons then make their way toward the dining room where they pay for their meal, fill out their order and find a table. Volunteers in the kitchen serve up the food on trays.
Wednesday’s menu included two entrée options: fried chicken or pork loin. The sides were twice-baked potato and green beans, along with a lettuce salad. Patrons could also choose a soup of the day — beef noodle — and a choice of chocolate pie or peach cobbler for dessert.
Approximately 40 people had a dine-in meal Wednesday, Weinreich said. A few others opted for carry-out.
“I think we have the best meal for the value of any place in Columbia,” Weinreich said.
Nearly everyone who helps run the Center is a volunteer, including the board of directors. There are about 20 volunteers on a daily basis who keep it running, Weinreich said.
COVID-19 has kept some volunteers away, but others have mostly taken up the slack.
“We’re fortunate to have the volunteers here at the Center,” Weinreich said. “Those people see that there is more good in coming and doing things, facing that fear, than just staying at home.”
The Center has been considering a curbside option for the hot lunch program but doesn’t have the funding or volunteers to make that a reality yet.
Help could come from Aging Best, an area agency on aging that works with senior centers across Central Missouri.
Aging Best is figuring out the necessary COVID-19 safety measures needed to support a curbside delivery program at the Center, said Director of Community Options and Services Marissa Peterson.
In addition to having lunch, Center visitors can play a game of pool, check out a book from the Center’s free library, participate in exercise activities or visit the gift and craft shop. The Center is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each weekday.
Weinreich said the Center welcomes donations or volunteers. People can pick up a volunteer application at the Center and drop off or mail in a donation.