BUCKSPORT, Maine — The town and the RSU 25 school district have combined forces with a coalition of volunteers from area communities to develop a homegrown meals program for older residents in the area.
The program will kick off a six-month pilot period on Monday at the Bucksport Senior Center, replacing a similar program that ends this week.
The new program was developed over the past two years by representatives from the town, the school district and the Bucksport Bay Healthy Communities organization in response to a survey of elderly residents who indicated they would like to see a program where the meals were prepared on-site.
According to coalition member the Rev. Linda Smith of the Elm Street Congregational Church, the previous program at one time provided an on-site cook but changed to providing precooked meals delivered to the site. Over time, participation dropped from 80-100 diners at each meal to current levels of about 20, which is not financially sustainable.
“Over the years, people just stopped coming,’’ Smith said. “One of the things we found was that they missed having a cook on-site; they really liked having home-cooked food.”
Bucksport Town Manager Roger Raymond said there is a need for this type of program that gives older residents a voice in the kinds of meals that are being served.
“We used to fill the building when the meals program first started,” Raymond said. “They liked having good meals prepared on-site, and they liked having a say in what was being served. Bringing that back to the community is important.”
The combined staffs worked with seniors to develop a list of meals that will be served during the pilot period. That list was referred to the school food service staff so the menus could be adjusted to make sure they had the necessary nutritional values for seniors.
The hope, Raymond said, is that the program will provide cost-effective, nutritious meals that older residents like to eat and that can be adapted to special dietary needs. Working in collaboration with the school department, he said, is a model, which, if successful, could be used in other communities around the state.
The meals program is a crucial component for the region’s senior community in that it provides a gathering place where seniors not only can get a good meal, but also can meet with friends, Smith said.
“Many elderly people, especially if they are on their own, tend to isolate themselves more and more,” Smith said. “This is an opportunity for fellowship, a way for them to get together with friends.”
One of the unique aspects of the program is that it relies on the existing school food service program and will use existing staff to prepare the meals.
“It’s really simple,’’ said Superintendent of Schools Jim Boothby. “There’s an opportunity that exists. We have the expertise, the personnel, the infrastructure to support the program. It is a unique opportunity that is worth trying.’’
Senior citizens are an untapped resource for the schools, Boothby said, and the meals program provides a way to create more connections between students and the elderly population in the region. Moreover, Boothby said, the program is a way for the schools to become a more active part of the community.
“We are part of the community,” he said. “We have a responsibility to be a good neighbor and a good partner.”
According to Glenn Redman, RSU 25 food service director, the program will match up well with what they are doing in the school programs.
“We’ve changed what we’re doing at the schools, and we don’t use a lot of processed foods there,’’ Redman said. “We’re doing a lot of homemade meals and desserts. We’re already doing a lot of offerings that will be good for senior citizens.”
A registered dietitian will work with the staff to ensure that the meals meet the nutritional needs of seniors and to adapt meals to meet special dietary needs.
The plan is for the pilot program to operate for six months on a nonprofit basis and then to determine how it is going. According to Boothby, based on the business plan organizers have developed, they will need at least 40 diners at each meal in order to break even.
The healthy communities coalition has provided a grant of $11,520 for the program to offset any shortfalls in the program during the pilot period.
The meals will be served from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the Bucksport Senior Center on Outer Broadway. Diners age 60 or older will be charged $3 a meal. Younger diners will be charged $4. For planning purposes, diners are encouraged to call ahead for reservations. For information or for reservations, call 469-3632.