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Spokane County Meals on Wheels scaling back restaurant dining program

By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

A popular and successful program to allowing seniors to eat at local restaurants for free is winding down as the coronavirus aid relief CARES Act funding that paid for it dwindles.

Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels, in partnership with the Aging and Long-Term Care of Eastern Washington, launched the Diner’s Choice program in April. It was meant as a replacement for the organization’s 12 Silver Cafes that had to shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the seniors who ate a hot meal served at the Silver Cafes each weekday signed up for home meal deliveries, but others preferred another option, said GSCMOW executive director Jeff Edwards.

The Diner’s Choice program gave seniors 14 meal coupons every two weeks that enabled them to get a free senior takeout meal each day at participating restaurants. It was a way to both replicate the social activity the seniors got at the Silver Cafes and support restaurants struggling during the pandemic, Edwards said.

“At it’s height we were serving about 850 seniors through that program,” he said. “It was really a pretty innovative program. We were able to pour some money into restaurants that were really hurting.”

But evenAlthough the program was successful, the funding is nearly depleted.

“It was always going to be a temporary program,” Edwards said. “We hoped to stretch it into next year. The hope was we could access additional funding.”

No additional funding has been found to continue the program, Edwards said, so the program is being cut back. As of Sunday, Diner’s Choice will no longer be available in Spokane and Spokane Valley, where there is hot daily meal delivery available.

In more rural areas of the county, seniors will be able to get 10 meal coupons a month. Those areas include Cheney, Deer Park, Rockford, Spangle and parts of unincorporated Spokane County.

Holly-Ann Musgrave works at a restaurant that participated in the program. “We have heard from countless seniors how this program has been a lifesaver for them,” she wrote in an email. “Some of them had less than $50 each month for groceries after paying bills.”

The program also helped seniors deal with the isolation caused by the pandemic, Musgrave said.

“We have one recently-widowed gentleman who has no family left, and the highlight of his day is coming to pick up his meal and having a small conversation with us,” she wrote. “Another shared with us how she was recently able to afford her medicine for the first time in months because she had been able to get food from this program.”

Musgrave wrote thatshe had hoped the Diner’s Choice program would have been able to continue longer.

“This program is so much more than just food – it is a lifeline for a quality of life for our local seniors,” she wrote.

During the last voucher distribution, each senior who was signed up, no matter where they were located, was given five meal vouchers. That led to some confusion about whether the program was ending completely, Edwards said.

The reason the program will continue in a limited fashion in more rural areas, at least for now, is that there aren’t enough volunteers in those areas to have hot meals delivered five days a week. But residents in those areas can get seven frozen meals delivered once a week.

“In the rural areas it’s hard to find volunteers,” he said. “We are trying to expand daily hot meal deliveries in rural areas.”

The number of restaurants participating in the program, which was about 30 countywide, will also drop because of the more limited area being served. “The response from the restaurants was overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “It really helped them get through a tough time.”

There is no waiting list to receive home-delivered meals and seniors who need meals delivered can call (509) 924-6976.

“Every senior in Spokane County has the ability to receive meals in some fashion,” Edwards said. “Just because we’re scaling this program back doesn’t mean we’re pulling out of any part of Spokane County.”

Though the Diner’s Choice program has been cut back, Edwards hopes to find a way to keep it going. “We are still pursuing additional funding,” he said.

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