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Gathering ‘round the Chuckwagon

Meal program for seniors dishes up square meals, good company.

Hot food nourishes more than just hungry stomachs at a Chuckwagon lunch.

“It’s a real friendly, nice place to go every day and have a nice lunch,” Phyllis Kupka said. “Socializing – that’s the biggest part of it.”

Every weekday, the Chuckwagon Senior Nutrition Program dishes up hot, nutritious lunches to some 30 members of the island’s 60-and-over crowd at the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center.

The meals are prepared in Bremerton, and then delivered to the senior center and seven other locations around the county, and served by volunteers.

“The basic part of the program is to provide nutritional meals to elders, and let them get out and socialize, meet friends,” said Chuckwagon’s executive director, Julie Pounds. “A lot of volunteers (are) people who are participants.”

The program is both meal and midday social for its participants, who sign up a day in advance to attend the lunch.

“I rate (Chuckwagon) very highly from the point of view of nutrition and great variety. I come five times a week,” said John Vincent, who started coming after his wife died in 1997.

“It’s important for me to come, not for the food. The companionship makes the middle of the day more enjoyable.”

“The servers are so pleasant,” said Barbara Weinstein, who started coming three months ago. “The time spent here, you feel relaxed. Everyone I’ve met is just great.”

“If I have to cook 21 meals a week, it’s a lot of effort,” said Oscar Strebel, who comes to lunch three times a week and sometimes stays for other BISCC activities. “If you cook alone, you wouldn’t get the variety.”

As participants arrive, they sign in with 94-year-old Kit Kleist, the oldest of the regular Bainbridge volunteers. But Kleist is quick to point out that she isn’t the longest serving; that distinction goes to Ruth Strobeck, who has helped with the program almost since its inception in 1981 at the Grange.

For volunteer Larry Skinner – who, shy of 60, is considered “underage” – helping out has given him the chance to hear personal histories and war stories from the island’s old-timers.

“People who come here... there’s a real closeness,” said Adri Anna Arena, meal site services coordinator for the program. “In a short time you get attached.”

Volunteer Darlene Bode remembers when regular customer, Will Carncross, who had been choir director at the Congregational Church for 30 years, died suddenly. “It hit this place like a shot,” Bode said. “No one would sit in his chair for a long time.”

“I said, ‘Should we give him a moment of silence or a ‘hip, hip hooray’?” Bode recalled. They did both.

Farm fresh

The Chuckwagon program is funded by the 1965 Older Americans Act, which also sponsors the “Meals on Wheels” program for homebound seniors.

Federal funds cover about 60 to 65 percent of costs, with grants making up the rest.

The food is familiar and nutritious fare, with extra flavor from themed holiday meals.

Chuckwagon has also partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local farmers’ markets to give eligible elders better access to fresh, seasonal produce.

Seniors making less than $17,224 a year can receive “Farmers’ Market checks,” good through Aug. 31, which they can spend at the Bainbridge Farmers’ Market on Saturdays.

Demand for the farmers’ market program has grown quickly, Pound says, with $11,500 in vouchers to be distributed this year. “Money is tight now,” she said. “I hope this (program) will continue and grow.”

To keep the program going, Chuckwagon is looking to expand the number of volunteers, which number about 15 on Bainbridge, and over 150 countywide. “Volunteers are really the backbone; without them we couldn’t have Chuckwagon,” Arena said.

The community enjoyed at the lunches is as rewarding for the servers as the diners, Bode says.

“It’s wonderful. Everyone’s on a first-name basis,” she said.

* * * * *

The Chuckwagon Senior Nutrition program is open to seniors 60 and older. Meals are served Monday through Friday except holidays at the BI Senior Center. Reservations are required one business day in advance by 2:30 p.m. Suggested donation for meals is $2.25.

Reservations, information and to volunteer: (888) 877-8511.

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