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Catering to new tastes

As baby boomers become eligible for food programs for the elderly, providers are finding they must offer updated fare to appeal to a more health-conscious clientele.

March 18, 2007|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

Pacifica, Calif. — Arlene Ciolino started the day with 75 minutes of aerobics, followed by 1 1/2 hours of yoga. So by noon she was hungry. She stowed her blue exercise mat, doffed her white sweatshirt and bellied up to the salad bar.

First came a layer of crisp romaine lettuce, then a scoop of chicken salad, a drizzle of Caesar dressing, a few croutons and a dusting of parmesan. A whole-wheat roll rounded out the meal.

It was light and health-conscious, just like Ciolino, a slender 67-year-old retired bookkeeper. On this drizzly Thursday afternoon, she was lunching at the uncharted edge of aging in America: a senior center 15 miles south of San Francisco that is working to attract a new generation of diners with meals to match their active lives.

Check the menu at the federally subsidized lunch program in a handful of progressive places nationwide and you'll see your grandmother's mashed potatoes and gravy nudged aside by fresh, organic and al dente foods demanded by a younger population more interested in arugula than arthritis.

Unlike the elderly diners who came before them, these folks were influenced more by the food revolution of the 1970s (think Alice Waters) than the Great Depression of the 1930s (think Hoovervilles).

And they are beginning to leave their mark on the Meals on Wheels Assn. of America, one of the biggest senior lunch providers in the nation, which launched an in-house think tank last year to "reinvent, redesign and re-engineer" its services in part so they appeal to a finicky new clientele.

"When those baby boomers start using the programs -- and they can now, because they're 60 -- we're going to have to change," said Enid Borden, chief executive of the group, whose member organizations serve more than 1 million meals each day.

"As I get older, the kind of food that I'm going to want to eat isn't the same that my mother ate," Borden said. "My mother ate meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I don't eat that."

Therein lies the challenge. Where there once was just a single generation of senior citizens in America, now there basically are two: the old and the very old, bracketed by baby boomers at one hand and centenarians at the other. And they don't crave the same kinds of food.

"We're supposed to provide food people like and that's healthy," said Jean Lloyd, national nutritionist for the U.S. Administration on Aging. "It's not easy.... One meal doesn't fit all."

Senior lunch providers throughout the country are required by law to serve people 60 and older. And as the federal Older Americans Act nutrition program turns 35 this year, it is feeling the strain of catering to this increasingly diverse population.

The average life expectancy in the United States has jumped from 47 to 77 over the last century, and the fastest-growing age group is 85 and older.

Furthermore, with people putting off retirement and women giving birth in their 50s and (occasionally) 60s, the "golden years" aren't what they used to be.

The federal nutrition program, originally designed to reduce hunger and cut social isolation, now serves nearly 3 million people each year, making it the largest publicly funded nutrition service for older adults in the country.

Local providers delivering meals to the homebound elderly are oversubscribed; 40% nationwide and 30% in California have waiting lists. At the same time, senior centers are struggling to entice 60- and 70-year-olds to come in and dine.

The needs of the homebound are only growing. Over the last 20 years, home-delivered meals, which are pricier than those offered in senior centers, have gone from 15% of the elderly nutrition program to about 58%, according to the Administration on Aging.

But resources are limited. Federal funding -- which provides less than half the cost of a meal -- for the most part has been flat in recent years. (The rest of the money comes from state and local government, fundraising and the seniors themselves.)

Younger diners get all the benefits of the senior lunch -- a nutritious meal in a supportive, social setting. But they also are desirable to the programs in part because they can help defray costs.

They often are volunteers, helping to serve others as they dine themselves. And they are often the ones most able to make the small suggested donation -- $1.25 to $4 a meal, depending on the venue -- toward the cost of lunch.

All of which raises the thorny question: How do you attract this younger generation of older America? To date, no one really knows the answer. But words like "health-conscious" and "choice" are probably somewhere in it.

"We're just on the edge of this," acknowledged Barbara Estrada, a nutritionist with the California Department of Aging, who points to pockets of experimentation around the country.

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