Volunteer Sandra Gaddis serves seniors at Carbondale's newly-returned congregate meals service through the Garfield County Department of Human Services. Photo by Sue Rollyson

Come for the food, and stay for the company — the Department of Human Services’s (DHS) senior lunches are back on in eastern Garfield County.

Since 1972, the DHS’s Senior Nutrition Program (SNP) has focused on creating meaningful connections and healthy meals for seniors around the nation by way of congregate meals.

After a brief hiatus at the Carbondale and Glenwood Springs locations to hire a new vendor, the Garfield County DHS announced on Feb. 8 their partnership with chef Alan Kokish, owner and operator of Aspen Chef in Basalt.

The new contract was awarded by Garfield County and includes $47,500 for meal services, according to Judy Martin, Senior Services Manager of Garfield County DHS. The contract runs through June 2022 and can be renewed for two one-year terms.

“The county has been extremely generous with our program from day one. They pay 50% off the top for transportation and 40% off the top for nutrition. They’ve really come through, and I just have to raise the rest of the money through grants,” Martin said.

Additional funding for the SNP is provided by the Northwest Colorado Area Agency on Aging and contributions from local entities and meal participants.

Meals began again on Feb. 22, and are already a popular event among seniors. According to Martin, nearly 40 seniors attended the second luncheon in Carbondale, and she expects that number to grow as more seniors learn about Kokish’s flavorful meals.

Bringing over 25 years of culinary expertise — which includes high-end cooking in Aspen and large-scale catering for events such as weddings — Kokish offers new and exciting menus for seniors to enjoy. 

“We were so excited when Alan applied for the position,” Martin said. “I have been so pleased with Alan and what he has been able to do for us. They’re just lovely meals.”

Kokish, alongside his team of Chris Shapp and Scott Doleman, are no strangers to cooking for seniors. For the past four years, they have been cooking the meals for the Eagle County senior program, and most recently in Pitkin County when the head chef there took a leave of absence.

“I took this on as a side project to my catering and private cheffing,” Kokish said. “Cooking for the seniors is really rewarding on a culinary level and on a human level. I’ve gained a lot of personal satisfaction from my relationship with the seniors in Eagle, and I really look forward to fostering that same kind of relationship in Garfield.”

According to Martin, it takes a special chef to cook senior meals; the chef has to have experience working with state-mandated dietary guidelines to ensure appropriate nutritional values for the meals. The menus are then reviewed by the county’s registered dietitian.

In Garfield County, meat or fish is served as the main dish alongside healthy vegetables and salads, a carbohydrate option and dessert. Coffee, tea and milk are also served with lunch. 

Despite the guidelines, Kokish is able to offer a significant amount of variety in his menus to accommodate the specific needs of the senior population. 

“If somebody puts in a meal request I do my best to not take it as criticism and to find a way to make it happen,” Kokish said. “It doesn’t always happen, but I do my best. We’re treating people as individuals.”

While the food is the obvious draw, Kokish and Martin agree that the communal aspect of the lunches is the best part for the seniors, considering many of them have been isolated for nearly two years as a result of the pandemic. 

“Food is sort of the focal point for our greater good. It’s nice to come and have a nutritious lunch, but getting to enjoy each other’s company is just as important, if not more so,” Kokish said.

New this year, the Carbondale lunch takes place at The Orchard Church every Wednesday at noon. With a crackling fire, high ceilings accented with wooden beams, and bright windows that showcase a stunning view of Mount Sopris, The Orchard beautifully creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere for seniors.

Accentuating this ambience, friendly and dedicated volunteers greet and serve the seniors throughout the entire lunch. 

While some seniors arrive with a caregiver or via carpool, there are still many seniors who are unable to attend due to scheduling or nervousness surrounding in-person gatherings. For those seniors, delivery meal services such as Valley Meals and More (VMM) and Meals on Wheels, through Valley View Hospital, are available.

VMM is a non-profit corporation that provides seniors with meal delivery in addition to medical and grocery store rides. 

Mary Kenyon, the executive director of VMM, understands the deep need to support seniors as she has seen an increase in meal deliveries. In 2021, VMM was averaging about 80 meal deliveries per day; barely three months into 2022, they are now averaging 95 meals per day.

“The population is growing, and there is a greater need for complimentary services,” Kenyon said. She is pleased to hear that congregate meals received the new contract, and emphasized that the bottom line is for seniors to have access to nutrition and companionship.

Echoing this sentiment, Martin said that seniors are some of the kindest members of the community; they work hard and they care for each other, she said, and they will need more help from the community as time passes.

Visit www.garfield-county.com/human-services/senior-menu/ for congregate meal locations and scheduling. Attendees are asked to make reservations at least 48 hours in advance by calling 970-665-0041. 

For VMM, visit www.valleymealsandmore.com/ to learn about volunteer opportunities and services.

Local congregate meals thrive thanks to volunteers. Photo by Sue Rollyson