Contract for seniors' meals is up for bids

The Baltimore Sun

Emanating from the cafeteria were aromas of baked potatoes and vegetable beef soup, accompanied by salad and ham and cheese on dinner rolls.

The meal appealed to Santina Nicolaus, 78, who said she has mostly subsisted on TV dinners since her husband died in January.

"It's very good," Nicolaus said over lunch at the Westminster Senior Center. "I'm finally getting out of the house now."

The federally subsidized lunches that the elderly depend on at Carroll County's senior centers have been prepared and delivered by Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland for nearly 15 years.

Until last year, the county Board of Education supplied the Mount Airy Senior Center with its food, but now this center is also covered by the Meals on Wheels contract, said Patty Whitson, who oversees the Bureau of Aging's five senior centers.

As the bureau prepares to accept bids for the contract this week, Whitson said other caterers will be encouraged to apply, including those who may prefer to prepare the food on site. She said she hopes Meals on Wheels will bid again on the contract, which the organization held for just over $78,000 this year.

"Are there bad lunches every once in a while? Yes, but overall they're very good lunches," Whitson said. "We're just offering options so we can see what's out there."

Most caterers would likely prefer to prepare the food at their own facility, Whitson said. But all five senior centers are equipped with commercial kitchens, though they don't have walk-in freezers. Any agency preparing the food on-site would also require additional health department licenses.

"The food would have to come in more often, with more deliveries because you wouldn't have the storage," Whitson said.

She encouraged prospective bidders to submit two proposals, one showing costs of bringing in the food, the other detailing the costs of preparing meals on-site.

Whitson said perhaps Carroll will shift to Frederick County's model, where four different caterers provide food for its senior centers.

In addition to Meals on Wheels, Whitson said bids would be requested from local food providers at the Carroll Hospital Center, the Board of Education and the Fairhaven retirement community in Sykesville.

Overlea Caterers also prepares meals for senior centers in the Baltimore metropolitan region.

All providers interested in the contract will be invited to ask questions at a pre-bid meeting in early October, Whitson said.

Lunch on Friday from Meals on Wheels was fish, and Elizabeth Beattie, 74, was delighted.

"When it's hot food, my plate's always clean," Beattie said, while struggling to finish her salad on Thursday.

But Shirley Hoff said strong combinations often served together, such as fish and broccoli, don't appeal to her.

The steamed broccoli served is usually colorless and mushy, Whitson said, because the health department requires Meals on Wheels to keep the broccoli at a hot temperature while transporting it from the agency's commercial kitchen in Baltimore.

"We're trying to listen to the seniors' concerns and address them," Whitson said.

But the growing population of aging baby boomers are the hardest to please. The more mobile age group often comes for morning activities but then leaves before lunch. A sign outside the Westminster Senior Center reminds them: "Meals Served Daily."

"Younger people are coming in for programs and then leaving," said Ruth Martin, site manager for the Westminster Senior Center. "You're not seeing the younger seniors stay."

The younger seniors prefer more a la carte options because they are accustomed to grabbing a sandwich or salad on the go.

But Whitson said the bureau's federal funding requires the centers to serve balanced meals that provide at least one-third of the recommended daily nutritional requirements. She said the meals must be heavy on fiber and legumes.

"We couldn't just offer a salad," she said.

The bureau gets $3.48 from the federal government for each meal it serves, but Whitson said that money also covers staff salaries at the senior center.

To defray costs, seniors are asked to donate what they can. The average diner pays close to $2 per meal, but some can't pay anything, Whitson said. Diners are encouraged to sign up for meals 1 1/2 days in advance, but no one is turned away, Martin said.

"For a lot of them, this is their big meal of the day," she said.

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