Buffet-style meals offered at Belen Senior Center

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A healthy meal sounds like such a simple thing, but for many senior citizens around the country and across New Mexico it isn’t.

Recent reports place the state second highest in the nation for risk of senior hunger.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Karen Bass builds herself a healthy salad from the self-serve cold bar at the Belen Senior Center. The center was chosen by the state for the buffet-style pilot program. If it is successful, this kind of food service will be implemented at senior centers around New Mexico.

For the seniors in Valencia County, many of them rely on a meal at a nearby senior center for a large part of their nutrition.

To draw more seniors to the centers so they can take advantage of the meal programs, Valencia County is initiating a pilot program at the Belen Senior Center that will change the way meals are provided to seniors, using a buffet-style service.

“This is all about getting more seniors into the centers for healthy meals,” said Jose Campos, the county’s Older Americans program director.

The self-serve model allows seniors greater choice of foods and quantities, while meeting daily nutritional needs.

Campos went on to say that many of the seniors who receive either home-delivered meals or come into the county’s senior centers have told him that meal is often the only nutritious meal they have on any given day.

“New Mexico ranks the highest in the country for seniors suffering from hunger,” he said.

The pilot program goals are to develop a model for expansion statewide to increase participation by those seniors most at risk for hunger, providing regular nutritious meals, reducing waste and maintaining costs.

The new buffet-style, self-serve system has only been in place for a little more than a week at the Belen center, but Campos said it has already proven to be very efficient.

“Look at this,” he says of the crowded senior center lunch room “We got 50 people served in about 10 minutes. They can take what they want; it’s all healthy and nutritious.”

Karen Bass is a salad lover, building herself a fresh spinach and mushroom salad on a plate.

“You can serve yourself and get as little or as much as you want,” Bass said. “It’s nice.”

The self-serve bars hold both cold and hot items, such as the aforementioned spinach and salad toppings, and cottage cheese and peaches. The hot bar lets seniors help themselves to favorites such as carne adovada, refried beans and tortillas.

“There have been a lot of improvements since Jose took over,” said local senior Frank Mike. “The remodel, and the food quality is better.”

Campos took over the Older Americans Program eight years ago.

Senior Gilbert Rael used words like “great” and “superb” to describe the new self-serve system.

“The choices are good. You serve yourself as you please,” Rael said.

The Belen Senior Center pilot program was developed in cooperation with the Non-Metro Area Agency on Aging and the New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department.

The county’s Older Americans Program was recently recognized by the North Central Economic Development Division and New Mexico Area Agency on Aging for the largest percentage increase in meals in the last two years.

Last year, the participation increased 13 percent and is on track to go up another 10 percent this year.

“In the next 10 years, we are looking at another 30 percent,” Campos said.

That increase is expected to happen when the first wave of Baby Boomers retire, bringing what Campos calls a tsunami of seniors crashing into senior centers across the country.

“People don’t understand what that is going to do to our community. More seniors are going to come to Valencia County,” he said. “We are getting our senior centers ready and the state is recognizing that.”

Between meals served at centers and those delivered to seniors at home, Campos said the program served nearly 300 people a day just before Christmas. Over the holidays, numbers dropped due to deaths, but Campos expects them to rebound quickly.

He said there is also a “silent generation” of seniors — those born between World War II and the Baby Boomer generation — who usually don’t seek out help.

“But once they get comfortable coming into the centers, they keep coming back,” he said.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.