A newly-established senior meal program is attracting a lot of attention, and a lot of senior citizens from the North Fork Valley.
Chrys Bailey recently founded the "Valley Organic Lunch Program for Seniors" at the Old River Road Trading Post on Black Bridge Road in Paonia. Held most Fridays, the program offers a nutritious lunch and an opportunity for seniors 60 and older to socialize while nourishing their bodies.
But it's so much more. Bailey believes the program provides a working template for areas nationwide looking to "support a healthy and happy senior community."
At last Friday's program, a fire glowed from a wood stove in the corner of the large dining room. Volunteers welcomed guests and answered questions. An array of foods were artfully laid out buffet-style on a large table. On the menu: potato-Leek soup, spinach salad, salad greens topped with edible flowers, and a platter of halved hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with capers. There were teriyaki chicken legs, roasted Japanese sweet potatoes, and roasted root vegetables in a rainbow of colors simmering in a purple stock.
The meals are lovingly prepared using locally-grown and -processed ingredients, explains Bailey. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options are always available, and fermented foods like pickles and sauerkraut provide enzymes, vitamins and other nutrients.
Before diners head to the buffet table, Bailey explains each dish, its ingredients, who grew them, and their nutritional value. She introduces the volunteers who made the meal possible and gives an overview of the program.
Bailey believes in the power of food as nutrition for body, mind and soul. She started preparing fresh foods for family and friends when she was a little girl and was making "ground-to-table" meals before they were en vogue. Over the years she's fed new and expectant mothers, farmers in the midst of the busy harvest season, families experiencing medical crises, and her own eight children and their friends.
Part of what she loved was the social aspect, the friendships and bonds built through the sharing food.
A chef and teacher, Bailey is well-known for hosting popular organic, vegan and macrobiotic cooking classes at the Trading Post. A petite, slender, spry woman with wavy dark gray hair, as she began experiencing what she calls "seniorhood," she saw more clearly the importance of nourishment and companionship to the lives of seniors.
The impacts of isolation, loneliness and sadness can have a profound effect on the health and well-being of the elder population, she said.
Last year she saw the effects of isolation in a family friend of 25 years who was nearing the end of his life. Several days a week she and others brought homemade meals, drove him to appointments, and kept him company. "He was withdrawing from his friends," she said. Had they not helped, she's certain he would have died alone.
While caring for her friend delayed the start of the meal program, it also showed her that the program was right for this area. The first meals were served last October. Turnout has varied from a small group to as many as 60 or more diners.
Meals are followed by an hour of social time, which might include a talk by a local expert on senior health-related topics, a visit from one of the farmers who grew the food, or a performance by local musicians or students.
Valley Organic Lunch benefits more than just seniors, says Bailey. It also supports the many local farmers who grow the food, and the local economy. "Supporting local farmers is very important to me," she said.
Education is also and important component of the program, says Bailey. Kitchen workers, mostly young people, are learning how to plan and cook meals to serve large groups of people, commercial kitchen etiquette, and how to prepare vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free meals.
The program also builds bridges, connecting diners with each other and with local farmers, younger and older generations, and in other small, tangible and intangible ways.
Bailey credits financial support from The Kampe Foundation and The Learning Council, the program's umbrella organization, for making the program a reality.
Newcomers are asked to fill out a short questionnaire. And while there is no charge for the meal, diners are asked for a donation. People give what they want to or can afford, says Bailey. Donations have largely been generous. After attending the program twice, a local couple recently donated $1,100.
But donations are falling short of covering costs, says Bailey. She is currently waiting to hear on some grant applications, and a fundraiser has been established on YouCaring.com (www.youcaring.com/thelearningcouncil-1042595), with a goal of raising $25,000 to keep the program going through 2018.
While it's all run by volunteers, Bailey would like to provide some financial compensation. Each meal takes three full days of preparation and clean-up. Some weeks she even helps with the harvesting of food.
Bailey is always looking for guest speakers and entertainers, and for grant writers.
The program is offered most Fridays from 12:30-2:30 p.m., and is open to North Fork area seniors age 60 and older, and to those who provide their transportation, regardless of age. Transportation is also available by calling Zoe at 970-683-9844.The next program begins at 12:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 19. A schedule is posted on the Old River Road Trading Post Facebook page. Or call Chrys at 860-402-1111.