California seniors get free restaurant meals delivered under new program

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A chef cooks vegetables at the Westin Bonaventure hotel as part of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s program to use FEMA and local money to produce meals to deliver to at-risk seniors, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 7, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – About 200 Los Angeles cooks are back at work, launching a California project to use federal disaster relief money that pays restaurants to prepare and deliver thousands of healthy meals for at-risk seniors.

The program, called Great Plates Delivered, is part of the state’s effort to ease suffering inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic that has left a trail of death, unemployment and hunger in its wake.

Alba Molina, 57, a cold food prep cook at downtown’s Westin Bonaventure hotel, is among the workers who mask up for duty at the otherwise deserted property near the Los Angeles Convention Center.

“It’s helping me pay my bills. It’s not just any job, it’s a good job with benefits,” Molina said.

Next week, Molina and her colleagues at other restaurants and hotels will turn out meals for nearly 4,700 seniors in the greater Los Angeles area. “I feel honored to be able to provide them this service,” Molina said.

During a recent Reuters visit to the Bonaventure, the workers filled trays with baked salmon, steamed broccoli, wild rice pilaf, salad, vegetables, roast turkey, and fruit. They then packed the meals into labeled boxes and handed them to waiting taxi drivers, who make the twice-weekly deliveries.

Driver Fredy Gomez, 51, who hadn’t worked for a month, filled his taxi’s trunk and seats with the boxes. Clad in surgical gloves and a black face covering, Gomez ferried them up the freeway to a cluster of small single-family homes, where he delivered the meals to elderly residents.

Taxi driver Fredy Gomez, 51, who has not worked for a month, delivers food from the Westin Bonaventure hotel to seniors, as part of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s program to use FEMA and local money to produce meals to deliver to at-risk seniors, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 8, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

FEMA FUNDING

California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the project in late April with the stated goals of serving a population vulnerable to COVID-19; boosting employment from farm to kitchen; and generating much-needed tax revenue for cities.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds cover 75% of the cost of the program, which debuted in Los Angeles in early May and is expanding to serve eligible seniors in all of Los Angeles County, participating organizations said.

The effort is spearheaded by the Hospitality Training Academy (HTA) and hotel and restaurant union Unite Here.

Some of those taking part include the University of Southern California, the Beverly Hilton, and Compass Group’s Levy Restaurants – which serves the Los Angeles Convention Center and Dodger Stadium.

“We have the largest kitchens in the region by far – you can spread people out. We can assure that people are getting their temperatures taken,” said HTA executive director Adine Forman.

Some government assistance programs have come under fire for helping large rather than small businesses. In this case, the employees – who have full healthcare coverage – are the biggest beneficiaries, said Susan Minato, co-president of Unite Here Local 11.

“These are workers living on the margins,” she said.

THREE IN ONE

Many of the Los Angeles recipients come from a temporarily shuttered service that previously shuttled them to senior centers for meals and activities, Minato said.

California pays the restaurants $66 a day to cover the cost of three daily meals, packaging, and delivery, said Rodger Butler, a spokesman for California Health and Human Services. The program for Los Angeles is slightly different, but still funded by Great Plates.

The program boosts demand in the hard-hit foodservice supply chain that provides 55-gallon barrels of butter, 5-lb bags of lettuce and other super-sized products that are perfect for restaurants, cafeterias and event companies, but too unwieldy for grocery stores and food banks.

“Anything like this helps (to make sure) food waste is minimized and our communities are helped – whether that’s a farmer or a senior citizen who is at home alone,” said Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

During the first week of the program, the total bill for the program in Los Angeles was $80,000.

The purchases generate sales taxes that could help offset billions of dollars in projected coronavirus-related revenue losses that California cities expect over the next two years.

“Whenever you can hit three policy goals with a program, that’s really, really good,” said Lee Ohanian, an economist at the University of California Los Angeles.

“This is something other states should be considering,” said economic consultant George Jouganatos, a part-time professor at California State University Sacramento.

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