NEI3A’s Iowa Cafe provides seniors with meal choices, socialization

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These table tents at Johnson's Restaurant and Elkader advertise the Iowa Cafe, a new program established by Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging (NEI3A) where anyone over the age of 60 can visit local, participating food service establishments and get a meal.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

 

It was about a year ago when the Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging (NEI3A) started an “innovative” new program called Iowa Café, where anyone over the age of 60 can visit local, participating food service establishment and get a hot or cold meal. 

 

That’s the basic gist of the program, one that had been in the mind of Director of Nutrition Janet Buls for quite some time. While a complicated nutritional analysis formula and dietary restrictions applied to certain programs slowed its development, all of that recently changed when the Iowa Department of Aging reinterpreted the rules. 

 

That meant the restrictive rules were being relaxed, less complicated and more adaptive to the dietary needs of senior citizens. It allows for programs like this to utilize a MyPlate nutritional analysis, rather than every item being analyzed by dieticians. While this new method still requires dietician approval, it is simpler, which also cuts down on cost and makes the program more appealing for restaurants and the NEI3A budget. 

 

Another piece of the puzzle that helped guide the program into existence was an app called SeniorDine, which allows NEI3A to track participation. It relies on a key card each participant receives in the mail after signing up and which they use to pay. Each participant receives 12 meals each month and they can use their key card once per day at any participating establishment throughout the state. 

 

According to Buls, there were other challenges as well, including simply getting restaurants on board. One issue is the amount of time it takes to put together a suitable menu, while others are the ongoing staff shortages, supply chain issues and rising costs, leaving some places willing but simply unable to participate. 

 

One local establishment that was able to participate was Johnson’s Restaurant in Elkader, who stated they joined the program because they were approached by NEI3A.

 

“A lot of our current customers fall into the age group served by this program and we figured, if we could help them out in any way, we would like to do that,” Sue Johnson said. 

 

When it comes to the motivation behind the program, Buls mentioned several. That includes the loss of congregate meal sites during the pandemic, which provided places for socialization and a way to level the playing field in terms of food security. 

 

This program allows senior citizens to leave the home and go out and eat, and it doesn’t affect their fixed incomes, meaning eating out doesn’t have to be treated like an inaccessible luxury. It also opens the doorway for healthier eating, as Buls noted many senior citizens struggle to eat enough fruits and vegetables. 

 

Additionally, it gives them a newfound sense of independence and self-confidence, and can even allow families the opportunity to go out and eat together. 

 

The program takes note of changing trends within the senior citizen population, such as congregate meal sites losing people and the fact that more people aged 60 are still working and unable to make it to those meal sites. 

 

Sometimes, its about choices. While congregate meal sites are a valuable resource, they usually offer a “one choice meal,” unable to offer the selection or variety of a restaurant menu, so this program sought to make changes based on those trends. It’s a “new way to meet their needs,” Buls said. 

 

During the process, Buls noted locations were chosen for a couple of reasons, namely a restaurant’s ability to support the number of senior citizens who might utilize the program, food deserts, especially those that have recently lost congregate meal sites, and establishments that could create senior friendly menu options. 

 

According to Buls, in the service area of 18 counties, there are currently seven participating establishments and she is optimistic she can get 12 on board by the end of the year. 

 

When asked about whether this number was low, Buls reiterated what it takes to find suitable establishments. NEI3A is also trying not to compete with existing congregate meal sites, but she mentioned there is a list of establishments that have contacted her about getting involved. 

 

Not to mention, there are financial implications, as NEI3A uses its funding to cover the costs of the meals, which comes to about $8.10 per meal. While participants can donate toward the overall cost of the meal, it is not required and the funding received by NEI3A is finite. 

 

When it comes to how successful the program has been, according to Buls, about 1,700 people have signed up for it over the last year. At the Johnson’s location alone, between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, they had 200 unique visitors and served 942 meals over that time. Seventy-five percent of participants ate four times. 

 

Buls noted that, during that time, only 11 people had more than 14 meals despite having a total of 36 available. She explained one reason for this could be due to eating out fatigue and the weather. 

 

Buls expects the numbers to rise as winter gives way to spring. Regardless, what’s important to remember is that participants always have the option to eat out, whether they utilize it or not, and that option helps combat food insecurity and gives them an outlet for socialization. In this case, it’s better to have and not use then to never have at all. 

 

As for what makes this so important, Buls said it’s about helping. 

 

“We know that eating alone is a high risk factor for poor nutrition,” she said. 

 

She went on to discuss the “serotonin boost” associated with being out and conversing with a server or seeing someone you know. It can actually cause you to eat a little more, and eating out prevents social isolation. 

 

“I’m a firm believer that changing health is a long-term thing…and long-term health helps preserve your independence,” Buls noted. 

 

Anyone over the age of 60 who wants to participate in the Iowa Café can log onto www.NEI3A.org and register online or call 1 (800) 779-8707 and ask for the Iowa Café.

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