Red carnations decorated the tables in the bright dining area as two volunteers learned how to prepare food behind the counter of the new Senior Dining Café in Richland.
Meals on Wheels, a program of Senior Life Resources Northwest, operates the cheery eatery at 1834 Fowler St.
The café is the eighth dining center option for seniors and the only one to offer menu choices, extended lunch hours and no-reservation requirements. It opened Jan. 30.
Menu options include traditional senior meals — the same foods prepared for noontime crowds at seven dining sites around Benton and Franklin counties — as well as a soup, salad and sandwich combination, or a chef salad meal.
Also available are ala carte items, including soup, salads and sandwiches.
The new café has welcomed between 12 to 15 customers each week since opening, said Shannon Rhodes, the café manager.
“We’ve had a slow start because of the weather,” said Marcee Woffinden, nutrition services director for Senior Life Resources Northwest.
The Meals on Wheels kitchen was closed for nine days this winter, which is “impactful on our staff, volunteers and the seniors we serve,” she said.
It’s also the most closures in the 16 years that Woffinden’s been with the agency.
But the new eatery is already starting to see regulars.
“I think people are enjoying the café and enjoying having choices and just being able to drop by and not make a reservation,” Rhodes said.
Woffinden said a Connell couple who frequently eat meals at the Connell Community Center recently dropped by while in town for a doctor’s appointment.
Rhodes said she hopes to see attendance grow as the snow melts and weather improves. Outdoor tables also will be added.
Woffinden said it’ll take a while to determine how popular the café will be.
“We’re on a huge learning curve,” she said.
Two new volunteers — Nadine Highland and Beverly Beattie, both of Richland — learned how to serve the meals at the café during a recent lunch.
Highland said she heard about the café’s opening and wanted to help. “This sounded like fun,” she said.
Beattie agreed: “I totally believe in Meals on Wheels. This is my time to volunteer and it is my No. 1 priority.”
All meals are offered by donation, and no seniors are denied food if they are unable to pay. Those under 60 years old are asked to make a donation to support the Meals on Wheels program, which is always in need of donations, Woffinden said.
The cost of the traditional senior meal is $7.15 for those under age 60. The café takes cash or checks only.
Senior Life Resources Northwest has a $17 million annual budget, with $1.2 million earmarked for nutrition services. The rest goes toward its home care services program.
Meals on Wheels collected $175,000 in donations last year, which isn’t enough to support it.
Senior demand for meals increases every year, following rising senior demographic trends, Woffinden said.
Last year, 173,000 meals were served. The program had budgeted for 157,000 meals; this year’s budget includes 172,000 meals.
“If we keep growing every year, we’ll have to start a waiting list,” Woffinden said. “We’ll have to reduce or control the dining center meals. The board doesn’t want to do that and I don’t want to do that, but government funding has been flat for many, many years and I don’t see that changing.”
Despite the challenges, Woffinden said the community has been a great supporter for Meals on Wheels. She hopes the support continues with the launch of a new fundraiser, Blue Brigade Fun Run, planned for March 25.
Participants will wear the same bib number, 1974, which is the year Meals on Wheels began in the community, and are encouraged to wear a blue shirt. Those who register can participate any way they want — even if it means staying at home or participating from a remote location.
They’re encouraged to share photos regardless of where they are.
Registration is $20 per person, plus $10 per shirt. The cost for groups or teams of four or more is $15 per person, plus $10 per shirt.
Children 10 and under who participate with a registered adult do not have to pay a registration fee.
The “fun-raiser” run/walk begins at 9 a.m. at Howard Amon Park in Richland. The kids’ dash starts at 8:30 a.m.
The new fundraiser is part of a month-long celebration of the national nutrition program for seniors, which was signed into law in 1972.
Community members are invited to ride along a meal delivery route to learn more about Meals on Wheels from March 20-24.
From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 29, celebrate the Blue Brigade Senior Dining Day at the new café with complimentary soup, sandwich and a blue Icee.
Those interested in volunteering for Meals on Wheels and current volunteers are invited to stop into the new café for lunch.
The café is open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.
For more information about the fundraisers and Meals on Wheels, visit seniorliferesources.org or call 509-735-1911.
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