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As population ages, local agencies figure out how to feed area seniors

MIDDLEBURY — According to 2016 data provided by the Vermont nonprofit Age Well, 19.9 percent of Addison County residents — nearly one in every five — are age 65 years or older. That’s up from 13.4 percent in 2011.
As Addison County’s elderly population continues to grow, so does the strain on the organizations charged with making sure that demographic does not go hungry.
That was the message delivered last week by a variety of human services providers who make up the Hunger Council of Addison County.
The group on Feb. 6 took a particularly close look at the work of Age Well Vermont, which delivers myriad services to the elderly in Addison, Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties. The nonprofit’s nutrition programs include Meals on Wheels, through which prepared lunches are delivered to seniors’ homes; community meals prepared and served at more than 70 gathering places and restaurants throughout northwestern Vermont; and a “ticket” service through which seniors can dine at participating restaurants offering various meal choices.
Rachel Lee Cummings, Age Well’s chief operating officer, said the nonprofit last fiscal year:
•  Served a combined total of 10,812 community meals to 704 people.
•  Delivered 37,032 Meals on Wheels to 276 homes. Approximately 200 Addison County seniors currently receive Meals on Wheels, thanks to Age Well and its dedicated corps of volunteer drivers.
•  Fielded 669 calls on its toll-free Helpline Calls.
•  Provided services to 1,324 Addison County elders and their caregivers.
The organization receives funding through the federal Older Americans Act, and must meet certain nutritional guidelines. Age Well ensures its meals include protein, vegetables, milk, juice, bread and fruit.
Since federal funding doesn’t cover the entire cost of the meals, Age Well asks participants for a donation (suggested at $5). Seniors — defined by the organization as 60 or older — can receive meals regardless of their income level, and none are turned away for lack of a donation.
“We work with all of our vendors to make sure the meals meet the needs and are appealing to the individuals receiving them,” said Chris Moldovan, Age Well’s director of nutrition.
Age Well is currently looking for a new vendor to supplant the 14 current food providers upon which the organization relies.
“What we are trying to do is standardize quality,” Moldovan said. “We want to make sure that if you receive a meal in Bristol that it’s similar to the meal served in Essex or Richford. We’re also looking at standardizing the types of meals that we serve.”
The organization also wants its new vendor to better meet clients’ special dietary needs. Some participants are diabetic, some are on a strict low-sodium regimen and others must have gluten-free food. There are currently times when Age Well can’t meet those special needs, Moldovan explained.
While participation in Meals on Wheels and the restaurant voucher program remains strong, Age Well has seen a “decline over time in Vermont, and nationally,” in community meals attendance, according to Moldovan.
“It seems to be an older crowd that comes,” Moldovan said. “Your ‘young’ 60-year-olds are still in the workforce and not coming out to the senior meals sites as often as they used to.”
Still, Addison County seniors in Middlebury and Vergennes are bucking that trend, according to Age Well officials. The collective meals held at the Middlebury VFW Post on Exchange Street and the Middlebury recreation facility on Creek Road consistently draw dozens of elder residents, as do lunches at the Armory Lane Senior housing complex in Vergennes.
Some of the meals come with entertainment — including music and “paint-and-sip” events, where participants paint pictures.
NOT TYPICAL SR. LUNCHES
Addison County restaurants that have been hosting Age Well community meals have include the KB Café in Vergennes; the Halfway House in Shoreham; Mary’s Restaurant and Cubber’s in Bristol; Rosie’s Restaurant, the Middlebury Inn and Patricia Hannaford Career Center’s Glass Onion Restaurant in Middlebury; and the Basin Harbor Club in Ferrisburgh. Those who are interested should log on to agewellvt.org to confirm specific dates and offerings. Some of the aforementioned restaurants host but a few meals each year, others do so a couple times per month. Age Well requires that people reserve their spot(s) prior to the meal. That reservation contact is Michelle Eastman at 802-377-1419.
While Age well has offered its separate restaurant “ticket” program for several years, it has grown a lot during the past 18 months. There are around 15 participating restaurants in the Age Well service area, according to Moldovan. The organization coordinates with restaurants on a menu that conforms to the Older Americans Act nutrition guidelines. Age Well receives requests for around 10,000 restaurant tickets per year in the combined four counties it serves.
“It allows choice,” Moldovan said of the ticket program. Participants can come to the restaurant of their choice on the date and time that suits them.
Rosie’s and the Halfway House are the only two Addison County restaurants participating in the ticket program, though others are being recruited, according to Eastman, community meals coordinator for Age Well.
Laura LaVacca is director of a school nutrition collaboration between the Addison Northeast and Addison Northwest school districts. She’s currently working with elementary schools in Addison, Starksboro and New Haven interested in hosting seniors for school lunches. Each elderly participant would present a voucher for his or her meal. LaVacca believes the program would be a win-win: Seniors would get nutritious food, while students would have access to senior mentors.
“It’s really exciting for us,” LaVacca said.
Transportation remains one of the biggest obstacles for seniors in terms of attending meals. Addison County Transit Resources has bus routes and a “Dial a Ride” program to help the elderly get to community activities in Middlebury, Vergennes and Bristol, as well as along Routes 116 and 7.
Knowing that seniors can’t subsist on a single daily meal through Age Well, the organization has started screening clients for hunger and malnutrition, according to Moldovan. This screening process is helping Age Well to better target its limited resources to those who need them most.
“There are some challenges,” Moldovan said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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