Circle of Excellence award honors Catholic Charities Senior Dining program

For its exemplary job of extending food assistance to Minnesotans in need, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, the Catholic Charities Senior Dining program was recently honored with a Circle of Excellence award by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

The award noted that during the pandemic the dining program rapidly changed its model of offering low-cost nutritious meal options for older adults in central Minnesota. By incorporating frozen foods, developing pop-up sites and partnering with food shelves, the Senior Dining program more than tripled its capacity and has been able to prepare and deliver about 91,000 meals per month, which is up from 26,000 meals a month in 2019.

“Our mission is to feed seniors,” said Ruth Hunstiger, director of community services. “Since 1974, Catholic Charities has been providing seniors with meals — congregate meals and home-delivered meals in nine counties, at approximately 40 different sites across the diocese.

“As soon as the pandemic hit, we closed all the congregate dining sites. More and more seniors, worried about what was going to happen. They desperately needed food but couldn’t get out to buy groceries,” she said.

“We had to spin on a dime, working quickly through logistical problems as new regulations or restrictions changed. Raw food became more difficult to get. At the same time, local businesses suddenly had surplus food they couldn’t serve. They offered it as well as help in delivering meals. Many of our regular volunteers, being vulnerable seniors themselves, were unable to assist any longer,” she said.

Instead of furnishing one hot meal a day, the dining program initiated curbside service twice a month: Seniors drive to a location and volunteers load their cars with up to 15 frozen meals.

Food shelves were seeing big increases as well, and partnered with the Senior Dining program to donate prepared meals. When other communities saw what could be done, they contacted the program, asking for help to feed their seniors.

“We recognized there were needs in communities that we didn’t normally serve, so we began what we call ‘pop-up’ sites — targeting an area where people are in great need.”

Food security is only part of the problem seniors are facing, Hunstiger explained.

“Being connected socially is often as critical as the actual food,” she said. “To help counteract depression and loneliness, we also contact seniors by phone weekly to check on how they’re doing. We let them know about other things that are happening so they can stay connected.”

The Senior Dining program collaborates with the Central Minnesota Council on Aging, which contributed funding to continue this mission.

Hunstiger said the Senior Dining program is honored to receive the Circle of Excellence award.

“It was both cool and humbling to have our hard work recognized by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. We’re grateful and thrilled.”

Circle of Excellence Awards have been presented for the last nine years. This year special consideration was given to organizations with exceptional service in response to the pandemic. In addition to the Catholic Charities Senior Dining program, five other programs were honored.

Author: Nikki Rajala

Nikki Rajala is a writer/copy editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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