A Visit to Three Dallas Congregate Meals Sites

The Senior Hunger Action Team has been hard at work setting goals for the coming year and creating implementable strategies to achieve those goals. Recently, we decided our goal for congregate meals sites in Dallas County was to increase participation by 15% over the next one to two years. In an attempt to better understand the level of participation currently taking place at congregate meals sites, as well as what those sites are doing to attract seniors and what could be done differently, I spent one week visiting three different congregate meals sites.

First I visited The Brady Center, a private non-profit senior center located in Deep Ellum and run by Catholic Charities. It was a chilly brady2November morning when I visited, and the rush of warmth as I entered was just as comforting as the smell of breakfast cooking in their large, industrial kitchen. Beatrice Carter, the Senior Case Manager and a member of the Senior Hunger Action Team herself, greeted me at the door and introduced me to the elderly gentleman behind the front desk, who was helping members sign in as they arrived. It was 9 AM, and the dining room was already filled with seniors, eating and chatting and enjoying themselves. Beatrice gave me a tour of the facility, which was extremely impressive. The Brady Center has several different activities rooms; in the first, a few tables with different craft projects had been set up, including a quilt-making station. In the second, sewing machines were arranged, with a stack of Christmas stockings beside them. Beatrice explained that a group of crafting seniors (cleverly named The Brady Bunch) were in the process of sewing stockings for Parkland Hospital, where newborn infants would be wrapped in them and presented to brady3their parents this holiday season.
The same room also contained a small library and a few exercise machines, as well as a barber chair where the men could have their hair cut once per month, free of charge. Along a wall adjacent to the dining area stood a row of computers, and Beatrice explained that the Center provides regular computer classes for the members. Other classes are also offered: ESL classes, brady4Diabetes Prevention classes, and benefits counseling. I was introduced to the rest of the staff, including an Activities Coordinator who showed me the centerpiece craft she was planning on leading interested members in: an adorable top hat made from a large tin can and decorated with jolly Christmas holly. As we were chbrady quoteatting, two volunteer staff members dropped by to show us the pine cone turkeys they wanted to teach the members to make.

Beatrice gave me a tour of the kitchen and introduced me to their chef, Grace. She explained that their funding comes from Catholic Charities, the Dallas Area Agency on Aging, and private and corporate donations. With that money, they order supplies needed from Ben E. Keith, and get what food they can’t get there (such as coffee and cereal) in bulk from Sam’s Club. Then Grace makes their meals on site. “Many of these seniors have told me ‘having a full stomach makes me feel better’,” Beatrice said, “and it is hot food, prepared by hand. That is so different from eating something that’s just been re-heated.”

As I was leaving, Beatrice handed me a copy of a calendar, with a full schedule of events and activities on one side and a full daily menu on the other. She invited me to come to their Thanksgiving Dance the following Monday, where she told me how great it was to see the seniors shaking their tail feathers. When I asked her if there was anything she would improve about the facility, she thought for a moment and then said that more than anything she would like to increase participation. They have between 120 and 130 members attend each day, but they have the capacity for up to 220. With a full-service kitchen, and on-site bus driver who picks up and drops off door-to-door, I couldn’t imagine it would be too difficult to attract new members, but it is a struggle nonetheless.

jubilee1My next site visit was to the Jubilee Center. The Jubilee Center has a much different situation; they are not a senior center, but a community center, and congregate meals is only one part of what they do. I met Candace Thompson, the Director of Community Outreach, as she was setting up the main room of The Old Church at Jubilee Park, a single-room church where the Jubilee Center serves congregate meals. The seniors had just finished a screening of the Queen Latifah film Last Holiday, part of the once-per-month Senior Cinema, and were helping volunteers to bring long tables back into the center of the room for the meal service.

Candace sat down with me and discussed numbers: The Jubilee Center serves lunch on Wednesdays and Fridays, and they see roughly 25 to 30 sejubilee2niors at each of those meals. They are also a private non-profit, and their funding comes exclusively from private donations. Donations are not solicited from seniors; in fact, there isn’t even a place to donate. When seniors enter, they write their name and age in a book on a table at the front of the church, and sit down for the meal. Candace explained that they purchase supplies from Sam’s Club, which they prepare in their own small on-site kitchen.

They have a few activities for seniors during the month: chair yoga, Bingo, a quilting project that the seniors work on during an arts & crafts session. Candace even mentioned field trips that they occasionally take, to Christmas parties and the like. When asked what she might improve, if given the opportunity, Candace gave the same answer that Beatrice had: she would like higher participation.

My final visit was to the Concord Senior Center on Pastor Bailey Drive. By far the largest space that I visited, the Concord Church is several large brick buildings on a enormous plot of land, and senior meals are served at the back of the church in a recreation hall with tables set up in the middle and a stage off to one side, where microphones stand in anticipation of the next round of entertainment. This congregate meals site is run by Dallas County and serves lunch every week day, where they see about 65-80 seniors daily. Donations are accepted at sign-in, no more than 50 cents to a dollar, and members must register beforehand (but of course no one is turned away). One thing I found interesting is that the Concord Senior Center only has one staff member; the rest of the folks in aprons are all senior volunteers who not only volunteer there, but also eat there. Seniors were playing cards while eating, some were watching the news on a flat-screen television, and other entertainment options included music, exercise classes, and Bingo. Concord receives their food from the VNA, and serves it from their large industrial kitchen in the back of the center. The center provides nutrition education and social services presentations to educate their members. Best of all, they provide free transportation to anyone who needs it, picking up seniors from their homes when notified. When I asked Jeanette Manzano, the Contracts Manager of the DCHHS Older Adult Services Program, what she would improve about the site if she could, she told me that she would love more funding to work with. Having more agencies in Dallas contribute money and time would make the experience at the center so much richer for seniors.

As a member of the Senior Hunger Action Team, it was very beneficial to me to have this opportunity to visit these sites, and I would like to extend a personal thank you to Beatrice Carter, Candace Thompson, and Jeanette Manzano for being so accommodating and answering all of my questions. As long as there are people like you working toward helping seniors, then we are already working in the right direction.

This post was written and contributed to the blog by Charlotte Johnson, Communications Coordinator for the Dallas office of the Texas Hunger Initiative. 

The Family Garden Demonstration Project Update: Week 10

garden03As we transition into the 10th week of the Family Garden Demonstration Pilot Project (FGDPP) we have seen leaves change to the many colors of the earth, temperatures drop low enough to see our breaths in conversation and Garden Soxx continue to grow steadily despite the unexpected cold winds.

With 10 weeks of experience caring for and maintaining their gardens, families have been learning a lot about what it means and what it takes to grow their own food in North Texas.

Avon and her husband used to plant rows of different vegetables, fruits and herbs in their backyard as a way to stay connected to their rural Texas upbringing.  After her husband became ill and passed away, their garden became a mere loving memory as it became too burdensome to maintain on her own.  With the FGDPP, the prospect of growing her own food again became a revival of those experiences toiling with the earth and a way to re-engage with her ability to plant and care for the growth of another breathing, living thing. To date, Avon has harvested 24 green beans, 10 radishes and 1 cup of cilantro during this fall planting season. While radishes are not her favorite, she was able to pass them off to the neighborhood kids who happen to be some of the only people I know who fervently eat radishes!

So what does it mean when an experienced gardener using the Garden Soxx in North Texas harvests a miniscule amount of food in one garden01growing season, not nearly enough to supplement a single person’s food intake? It means that these gardens had more symbolic and unexpected positive consequences including: families reconnecting with historical and familial gardening knowledge that is often lost when one moves into an urban landscape, learning/honing in on new or rarely used gardening skills because low-income neighborhoods are less likely to own or have access to ample land for a garden, and teaching their young children through participatory action where food comes from and how to tend for another living thing that in turn gives us life. Communities were united and engaged in reciprocal learning as families included neighborhood children in the watering and maintenance of the gardens, families and communities (re)engaged in their faith by seeing the works of a higher being enact itself in the growth of the gardens, communities became stronger as they added another skill in their arsenal of self-determining tactics, and communities focused on capacity development in their (our) quest for social equity.

Springing forward, it also means that families utilizing the garden soxx need much more support and guidance throughout the gardening process than what was initially anticipated and that host organizations looking to expand the program into the spring season need to be very intentional about when they plant, where they plagarden02nt, how they plant, what vegetables they plant and what systems and connections they have in place to help support the maintenance and the overall success of these gardens in improving families’ food security. The beauty of these gardens is that the soil can be used for up to 2 full years, leaving families with 3 more seasons to hone in their gardening skills and self-determine how they want to engage with food and health for their own families.

Final and in-depth recommendations on best practices in growing food in the Garden Soxx will be made available in late December/early January. Stay tuned.


This post was written and contributed to the blog by Wendy Ortiz, Emerson Hunger Fellow

Spotlight: Senior Hunger Action Team

Senior hunger is a prevalent issue in Dallas County, one that leaders in the local anti-hunger community are finally beginning to take a real stand against. One of the ways that leaders in the Dallas region engage in ending senior hunger is through the Dallas Coalition for Hunger Solutions.

The Dallas Coalition for Hunger Solutions (DCHS) was created in 2012, chaired by Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and spearheaded by the Texas Hunger Initiative, the North Texas Food Bank, and several other nonprofits and religious organizations that make up the leadership team. Through five different action teams, we bring together community leaders who are engaged in the work of addressing poverty and hunger to take action together in a collaborative setting.

The five action teams cover issues such as child hunger, urban agriculture, the faith community, neighborhood organizing and senior hunger. The Senior Hunger Action Team meets monthly at The Senior Source, which is the go-to nonprofit in Dallas that assists and connects older adults to resources in our community. Chaired by Katie Dickinson, the associate executive director of The Senior Source, the team is currently in the middle of a strategic planning process as it takes steps to ensure that all older adults in Dallas have access to nutritious food.

We began this process by mapping the landscape of senior hunger in Dallas. In Dallas County, 9 percent of seniors (which comes out to 21, 277) live in poverty. Our local Meals on Wheels, which is run by the Visiting Nurses Association, serves 4,000 meals per day, and 76 percent of their clients are over 60 years old. In Dallas County alone, 19, 534 seniors are eligible for SNAP, but do not receive it. That means that 57 percent of eligible seniors are not receiving SNAP.

The next step we took in our process was to identify barriers that seniors in Dallas County are facing and the resources that the experts on our team identified to that can help break down those barriers. Many of the barriers keeping seniors from accessing SNAP center on awareness. For example, many seniors seem to believe that if they apply for SNAP benefits, they might be taking benefits away from people whom they perceive to need it more.

Clearly, there is a great need in Dallas for change when it comes to how we approach senior hunger. Our next steps will be to define our most important goals, and finally to outline strategies toward reaching those goals. We are still a relatively new team, and as we take these steps toward helping seniors in our community we are excited to learn from one another and the community around us.

To stay updated about what DCHS is doing to end senior hunger, like us on Facebook: Dallas Coalition for Hunger Solutions and follow us on Twitter: @DallasCHS

This post was written and contributed to the blog by Charlotte Johnson, Communications Coordinator for the Texas Hunger Initiative – Dallas. 

The Family Garden Demonstration Project Update: Week 4

September 13, 2014 marked the day nine inter-faith based organizations and churches came together to address the mass food insecurity experienced among Texans and demonstrate the grave need for low-income families to have access to nutritious fruits and vegetables.  The Family Garden Demonstration Project is the seed of the Dallas Coalition for Hunger Solutions and intends to show that the need to address food insecurity on a local, state and federal level is both urgent and relevant. The rate of food insecurity among Texans is 18.4%, which is significantly higher in comparison to the national average of 14.5%.  4,812,760 Texans are struggling with food insecurity, including 1,849,060 children. Markers of food insecurity include the lack of access to enough nutritious food, the purchasing of lower quality food and skipping meals due to the lack of financial resources.


Recognizing that the inequity in food access impacts millions of Texans who represent a wide array of cultural, linguistic and demographic backgrounds, the nine participating organizations financially sponsored the distribution of 148 gardens to their low-income members. Each site/family received a Garden Soxx kit, which are self-sustainable, biodegradable mesh tubes filled with organic compost soil; an important alternative to traditional gardening methods as many low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to live in areas with contaminated soil.

Pictured right: Garden Soxx placed among flowers and plants in the backyard of a Northlake Baptist Church member. After her husband passed away several years ago, she struggled to make ends meet on a monthly basis.  The ability to grow her own food with the Garden Soxx is giving her the opportunity to supplement her monthly food intake.

As we move into the 4th week of the Family Garden Demonstration Project we are seeing some amazing growth in the gardens and hearing people’s powerful connections with growing their own food.

blogpic3This is a resident of a men’s home in Dallas who remembers gardening on his grandparent’s land as a child. As he tends to the garden, he reminisces on memories and knowledge of planting and harvesting and says he still remembers gardening techniques his grandparents taught him several decades ago.

Families and individuals that grew up gardening and growing their own food as children are reconnecting with that history and carrying on those traditions while living in an urban landscape. The simple maintenance of the Garden Soxx makes growing food in limited land space possible.

Pictured left: The residents of this home decided to place their Garden Soxx on their second story balcony.  The space looks like it was perfectly made to hold the Garden Soxx!

blogpic4Members at Wesley-Rankin Community Center are using their gardens as a way to  strengthen community and build self-sufficiency.  Everything about the gardens was a collective discussion and decision; from placement of the garden, to maintenance, to who would receive the harvested food. Wesley-Rankin Community Center acknowledges that the community holds tremendous power and knowledge and believes in a collection voice and action.

Pictured right: Community leaders plant the gardens and set up a schedule for members to water and tend to the garden on a daily basis.

Most importantly for the faith based organizations, however; is their ability to share in their faith and strengthen their relationship with God. Here is a City Church member’s experience with her faith and gardening:

I saw God’s design in the garden too, in that I give the same thing to every single seed: soil, water and sun. And each one turns out so different only because of what God designed within the seed.The seed in the analogy is the Word of God, and as he says, his word does not come back empty, but rather, it accomplishes his purpose. So while my faith is shown by my works (watering the garden), it is God’s design/purpose/power that makes it grow.

While harvesting and eating the fruits of their labor has yet to happen and the amount of food produced is still unknown, what is evident is that these gardens are giving communities and families the ability to take direct action in their case for equitable access to nutritious food. While the push for a more expansive social safety network in Texas awaits, families are teaching their children about gardening and consequently about growth and responsibility, folks are reconnecting with the earth and the power of land to provide physical sustenance, some elderly widows are flooded with lovely memories of their husbands gardening with their children, families are strengthening in their faith and their connection to their congregations and conversations about what we need to do to end food insecurity in the US are happening.


This piece was written and contributed to the blog by Wendy Ortiz, Emerson Hunger Fellow 

Family Garden Demonstration Project Photos!

The Family Garden Demonstration Project’s Distribution Day was a great success! Thank you to everyone who came out on Saturday, September 13 to help distribute 148 gardens to low-income and food-insecure families. First, we had some rousing speeches from Mari Marks and Jana Jackson, and then volunteers helped load the GardenSoxx into the cars of the volunteers delivering the gardens! To enlarge one of the below photos, just click on it!

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Thank you, everyone!