Marty Campbell and Nancy Stover enjoy a community meal. Photo by Paula Mayer.

By Danielle Davis

The meal begins with a blessing. “Let us do everything in gratitude,” says Ferdinand “Ferd” Meyer, a regular and volunteer at the Garfield County Senior Program meals in Parachute. Immediately following the blessing, Senior Services for the Garfield County Department of Human Services Manager, Judy Martin, makes her announcements to the group, which include the news that A Little Help, a nonprofit offering support to seniors, is opening a chapter here. Concluding her announcements, Martin delivers a friendly reminder: “These lunches are a way for us to build community, and so I’m making three topics off-limits: politics, religion and vaccines.” And on that note, a gentleman at my table, Vern Scott, rises to carry out his lunchtime role of tickling the ivories while the meal is served.

As of Sept. 1, the Garfield County Senior Program restarted its community meals and CSA (community-supported agriculture) subscription for seniors at various sites in New Castle, Silt, Rifle and Parachute. In addition to hot meals, seniors take their pick of the freshest local produce, which is the product of a collaboration between the Senior Program and local farms. The three farms providing produce to the program this year are Abundant TerrAced Earth in New Castle, The Farm Collaborative in Aspen and the Glenwood Springs Community Garden. “I love knowing that my food is going to nourish seniors through this great program,” says Terrie Swerdlove, owner of Abundant TerrAced Earth and former social worker.

At the Sept. 1 lunch in Parachute, guests are treated to produce from The Farm Collaborative — melons, leeks, kale, squash and beets. “The kale is really popular because everyone loves making kale chips now,” says Martin as she observes the kale getting snatched up.

The Senior CSA program began five years ago when Martin would visit the Glenwood Springs farmer’s market each week and deliver the produce to the meal sites. Soon, Martin forged a partnership with the Glenwood Springs Community Garden, where Garden Manager Karen Garrison tends 22 plots now dedicated to the program. In 2021, Martin and team solicited and received funding from the Northwest Area Agency on Aging and from the Aspen Community Foundation to continue purchasing the produce shares. And, when seniors were told to stay home to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19, the meal program evolved into a weekly grab n’ go lunch with a produce pickup via a makeshift, drive-thru window installed in parking lots at meal sites throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. “I know folks in every town we serve meals and I feel like I’m part of the community in each town,” says Martin. “The benefits of this program are twofold,” she adds. “Seniors get the freshest, most nutritious local produce, and farmers benefit from the reliable revenue.”

On the menu the day I visit is a hot meal of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy and green beans, which I’m told is the universal favorite by my tablemates. “Do you want to hear a story about Vern and me?” Meyer asks as we sit down to lunch. Whipping out his phone, Meyer pulls up a picture of a group of college-aged men in a 1950s fraternity-like setting. “Recognize anyone?” he asks, eyes twinkling. Both geologists, the story goes that Meyer and Scott thought the other looked familiar at a previous lunch and Meyer later found an image they’re both in, two rows apart. “That’s what we looked like in our day,” they say, which garners a good-natured eye roll from Vern’s wife, DeeAnn Scott.

Another guest, Frank Shove, says that, for him, the best part of the meals are the friendships and “not having to cook for myself.” Shove’s wife passed away after a long battle with cancer, during which he took care of her and cooked three meals a day. “So, I don’t really like to cook anymore,” says Shove. “I like it here because someone cooks for me.” DeeAnn Scott also wants to share a story. “Do you want to know what he said to me when we were dating?” she asks, motioning in Vern’s direction. “He said, ‘DeeAnn, I’m worried that you might love me more than I love you,’” she playfully recalls the memory with the same perfectly-timed eye roll. “Well, that made me so mad,” she whispers, and I lean in closer for the punchline, “I decided right then and there I was going to make him fall in love with me, and then I was gonna drop him flat!” she laughs, lightly smacking her hand on the table for emphasis. Vern, obviously amused by his wife’s retelling, turns to me with a wink, “Well, it didn’t work out that way, did it?”

Leaving the meal in Parachute, I note another benefit of the Senior Program. The meals are a weekly opportunity for people to gather and commune with each other through sharing and storytelling, with food as the conduit.