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It’s lunchtime in the community room at Linda Vista’s Bayside Community Center, and at Table One, old friends take their regular seats.
Jim Turner, 90, gnaws into an orange slice. Lucille Sampson, 85, pulls apart a roll. Helen Contine, who won’t say her age, scoops up a kidney bean from her salad.
They eat quietly, for the most part.
They have been coming to the Bayside Community Center for years. They eat an inexpensive meal five days a week, “which is nice, because I cook less now,” Sampson says. But mostly, they come for each other’s company. They don’t have to say much. They know each other so well. They have watched each other age.
Contine looks to the ground and notices a piece of food that escaped Turner’s tray. “You’ve got something on your shoe,” she says. He looks down and nods, then returns to his orange.
They all have stories. Sampson was a lifelong housewife, except for a year contributing to the war effort in the 1940s. Contine’s husband was a TV repairman, and she helped him adjust the wires and tubes. Turner was a riveter on aircraft. Across the round folding table, the newest member, Maria Sanchez, is an immigrant from Mexico.
They strain to communicate across the table. Turner’s hearing aid is failing. Sanchez is taking an English class, but is struggling. Contine speaks softly.
“But we’re all friends,” Sampson says. “This is something to look forward to everyday.”
The daily routine that the diners of Table One have relied on, in some cases for decades, may be disrupted in the coming months. Last week, administrators at the non-profit Bayside Community Center found out the lunch program will end in May. It’s been serving hot meals to seniors in this part of Linda Vista — a largely poor, immigrant community — for 23 years.
Bayside doesn’t run the lunch program directly. A local nonprofit provides the meals at five community and senior centers, including Bayside, under a contract with San Diego County. But the organization said it can no longer do so sustainably.
LiveWell San Diego receives $220,000 in county and federal money to run the entire program, which costs about $300,000, said Kevin Casillo, the organization’s executive director.
In recent years, the program has run a $35,000 to $50,000 deficit each year. That money had previously been provided by the lunchtime guests, Casillo said.
“But we had been sliding for a long time,” he said.
At sites where more than 100 seniors used to eat lunch everyday, fewer than 20 show up now, he said. Many of those who still come cannot afford the recommended donation of $3.50 per meal, but they aren’t turned away.
LiveWell has started phasing out the lunch program at its five locations — which also include locations in Ocean Beach, Clairemont, Serra Mesa and Belden Village — and will not renew its contract with the county next year. The county is looking for a new contractor, but there are no guarantees the program will return to the current locations.
The news was sudden for the Bayside Community Center, and Jorge Riquelme, its executive director, is scrambling to find out how it happened. The way the decision was made frustrates him, and he laments that the program was scrapped unilaterally. Bayside and the other organizations that hosted the program weren’t consulted.
The community center may have come up with creative ways to continue funding the program, Riquelme said, but they were not given the chance.
Though Bayside does not provide the meals directly, it provides the space, staff and volunteers for the program. It is part of a broad range of services that Bayside offers to seniors. A few of them rely on the program for their only meal of the day. Nearly all of them rely on it for companionship.
“In the meantime, do we tell all of those people to stay home for three months? This is an important part of socialization for people,” he said.
It gives seniors a reason to leave the house and stave off the cognitive deterioration that often accompanies old age, especially for seniors without family to care for them, he said. The organization has used the lunch program to attract seniors to its other programs, like exercise classes.
Bayside is appealing to donors to keep the lunch program alive.
They’ll gladly do away with some of the niceties, if they can keep the food. The placemats are made of white paper, but a soft floral design lends them a subtle elegance. The forks and knives at each place setting are plastic, but they’re tied into little bundles with red ribbon.
At Table One, Turner stumps his friends with riddles. He collects quarters designed with images from the 50 states. When Contine comes across one, she brings it to lunch the next day so Turner can examine it. Sometimes they trade.
Sanchez is only 57, but suffering from depression. She is nostalgic for her native Mexico, but can’t go back, she said, because her children are here. “My doctor told me I had to find a place to socialize if I wanted to help my depression,” she said.
A volunteer dishes out cake. “I’ll have the chocolate,” Sanchez said. “A big piece.” She grins.
After lunch, visitors wander over from the other tables. Agnes Offdeahl, 90, sits down and jokes that the diners of Table One, which is closest to the kitchen, always get the biggest portions. “Table One always gets served first.”
Sanchez eats half her cake, and plops the other half into a Styrofoam cup. She unfolds a napkin over the top and uses the ribbon from the silverware to try to tie it in place. As she fumbles with the ribbon, Turner reaches into his pocket.
Sanchez knows what’s coming, and waves him away. But he insists. He hands her a rubber band. She stretches it over the cup and fastens the napkin in place.
“Jim saves the rubber bands from his newspapers every morning, because he knows we like to wrap up our leftovers,” Sampson says.
“They come in handy,” Turner says, smiling.
Contine leans over and speaks into Offdeahl’s ear. She delivers the news that the lunch program is slated to end. Offdeahl hadn’t heard. Her eyes widen, and her face goes flush.
“What are we going to do?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” Contine says.