Free meal program has dual benefits

05/20/2020

Starting this week, restaurants across the county are providing three free meals a day for delivery to 300 seniors, including to around 45 people in West Marin. The state initiative, which will pilot for two weeks in Marin, has a double purpose: to improve food access for older adults and to help restaurants get back on their feet. 

“This was an extremely heavy lift to organize in a short period of time—we built this program in a week,” said Kari Beuerman, a county social services director. “We are anticipating that there are a lot of details still to work out, and so we are starting small and have the potential to ramp up. If it’s successful, we can go back to the [Board of Supervisors] and make a recommendation that it be continued.” 

There is room for the program—called Great Plates Delivered—to expand, with funding for 1,000 people through June 10, after which the state will assess continued support. 

Two local restaurants are participating so far: the Parkside Café in Stinson Beach and Side Street Kitchen in Point Reyes Station. They agreed to certain state nutrition guidelines, including providing food low in sodium and sugar. All the food they provide—including a $17 breakfast, an $18 lunch and a $31 dinner five days a week—is reimbursed by the program. 

“It’s a win-win,” said Sheryl Cahill, the owner of Side Street. “We are down 70 percent in sales compared to normal, and so it’s totally helpful. And when there’s a reciprocal benefit, even better.”

Ms. Cahill recently announced the closure of her other restaurant, the Station House Café, and is actively looking for a new location to re-open. Meanwhile, she said Side Street was prepared to participate in the county program because it had already adapted to take-out; her only concern was that to-go supplies can be hard to access these days and could be a limiting factor. 

Ms. Cahill hopes more people in West Marin sign up for the program.

There are some restrictions, however. Participants have to meet several criteria: living alone or with one other program-eligible adult, being age 65 or older or else between 60 and 64 but defined as high-risk by the Centers for Disease Control, including having an underlying health condition and testing positive for Covid-19 or being exposed to it. 

Additionally, participants may not be currently receiving assistance from another state or federal nutrition assistance program, and not earn more than 600 percent of the federal poverty limit. For a household of two, that’s $101,460.

From the supply side, Ms. Beuerman said coordination with restaurants has proved more difficult on the coast. Four or five West Marin restaurants applied and were accepted into the program but are facing hurdles. 

Restaurants are responsible for their own delivery, and finding vehicles and drivers up to the task has been challenging. In some cases, the wide geographic area they need to cover presents a problem, and in other cases it’s a lack of internet access for restaurant employees trying to coordinate with county personnel. For Side Street, one employee stepped up to do the work, though Ms. Cahill may end up doing some of the driving herself. 

A third-party delivery program may be hired to assist restaurants on the coast as a solution, Ms. Beuerman said. 

Marin fronted the $660,000 to run the pilot, though the majority of that is reimbursable. Seventy-five percent will be provided by FEMA and around 20 percent by the state, leaving Marin with 6 percent of the tab. 

With a quarter of the county’s population being over the age of 60, Ms. Beuerman emphasized the program’s importance from a safety perspective. “For all of this time, old people have been going to the stores and food pantries, and that’s not the safest plan,” she said.

Ms. Beuerman said there were many programs helping seniors—such as the county’s Meals on Wheels program, which provides groceries to those unable to drive—but that hopefully this program would catch anyone who had fallen between the cracks.